What does fashion have to do with feminism?

Some thoughts on the most pressing gender issues in the fashion industry

Let’s start this reflection on gender with a well-known trope – the image of a middle-aged African woman, walking sandaled through the dusty roads of a rural market, balancing a bundle of goods on her head. It’s an archetype that most of us will be familiar with. It may even be an image we associate with feelings of fondness and reverence for ‘the simple things in life.’ The truth behind the trope however, is another story altogether. 

Research conducted by human rights and environmental NGO, The OR Foundation estimates that around 15 million items of used clothing arrive in Ghana every week. These items are typically secondhand clothing donations from developed countries, handed over with the best intentions. About 40% of these items are discarded in landfills due to their poor quality or irreparable manufacturing faults. A large proportion of these items are littered in bodies of water, where toxic dyes leak from the clothing into the drinking water of the surrounding communities. What’s left is gathered up by local women traders who transport these clothing items in large bales, balancing them on their heads as they travel on foot into urban centres where they sell or trade the garments. 

And while the West romanticises this image as an endearing symbol of strength or resilience, the majority of young girls who carry these bales suffer permanentdamage to their spine. Just two months of this constant pressure on the neck and spine can lead to further health complications such as chronic back and shoulder pain, migraines and headaches, poor quality sleep and stomach ulcers caused by taking large quantities of painkillers to cope with the strain.

The harsh reality is that the fashion industry has failed women. And while no one can quite figure out how we got where we find ourselves today, we are undeniably here, at a turning point in history. And something’s got to give. 

The price of indifference

When we think about the connection between the call for sustainability in the fashion industry and the plight of women worldwide, what may come to mind is the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013. When a building housing a garment factory collapsed, killing 1134 – mainly women, the world paid attention. 

The fact however, is that the devastating events of the Rana Plaza is just one example of many human rights injustices that are being perpetuated by the fast fashion industry. This is not a time for finger-pointing or name-calling, but it is a time in history where consumers are being compelled to ask the difficult questions and face the ugly truths.

The gender dimension of mass exploitation

Conscious consumers who believe in and support the drive to transform the fashion industry into a sector that promotes gender equality, supports human rights and holds perpetrators of injustice to account, have a responsibility to make informed decisions. And part of that includes understanding the gender lens of sustainability and the disproportionate effect that women suffer in times of political crisis, economic hardship or social upheaval.  

Examples of how this disparity manifests at a grassroots level abound. Here are a few thought-provoking facts about the fashion industry’s impact on women’s wellbeing. 
1. Human trafficking in the fashion industry

According to anti-slavery lobbyist group and awareness campaign, A21, in southern India alone, over 200 000 young girls are trafficked to work in clothing factories or in jewellery and clothing supply chains. Approximately 40 million people who fall prey to modern slavery work in private sectors such as agriculture and fashion, with just under 60% of these people working in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. 

2. Poor wages and working conditions

A growing body of evidence suggests that millions of women from around the world are becoming victims of the greed and exploitation that plays out in the fast fashion industry. Mass-market garment factories employ women as the majority of their workforce. Many of these women shoulder the responsibility of supporting their families emotionally and financially. 

From a young age, many are forced to drop out of school to help earn a living that will sustain their households. In one example; provided by global feminist network, The Circle, a child garment worker reported having to work more than 400 hours for $60. It’s difficult to grasp, but stories like hers are more common than most of us realise.

3. Unequal opportunity

As is the case in many other industries, the gender pay gap is compounded by a lack of women leadership in the fashion industry as a whole. According to the activist movement, Fashion Revolution, the gender disparity and inequality becomes more rife the higher you climb up the ladder of senior leadership.

Despite women making up the majority of the biggest consumers of fashion, men still hold the highest executive positions in leading fashion houses and along the global fashion production chains. Women hold less than 25% of leadership positions in fashion companies and are stunted in their career growth but what is being referred to as “The Glass Runway.”2. 
Our commitment to change

This International Women’s Day provides us all with an opportunity to reflect on the state of women’s wellbeing in the fashion industry. The welfare of women is a far cry from what it once was when the earliest feminist suffragettes took to the streets in protest. We cannot deny that significant strides towards progress have been made. But we must acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. 

Systemic change requires grit, consistency, perseverance and commitment to doing our bit to promote positive change, one day at a time. Part of this commitment is supporting brands that employ small teams of artisans from local communities. Many of these artisans are women, who not only provide skilled labour but bring with them a wealth of ancient wisdom and timeold craftsmanship, passed down from generation to generation. In their own right, these women are custodians of culture, preservers of tradition and representatives of what lies in store for the future of fashion. 

KORISSA – a brand inspired by the time its founder spent working for a non-governmental and World Fair Trade organisation, employes artisans and teams of women who use traditional hand-weaving techniques, hand-dyeing techniques and hand-etching methods to produce seagrass baskets, planters and home decor.

AFLÉ is a celebration of the Akan communities of West Africa, led by maternal figures who command authority and live according to a philosophy that reveres the divine feminine. 

South African brand, Ardmore employs 70 local artisans. Many of them are women who live in the surrounding communities and through Ardmore, have honed their skills and creative abilities by tapping into the brand’s philanthropic mission. 

In brands like these, we see the ripple effect of our belief that change is no longer just a possibility – together we can make it an inevitability. 

This International Women’s Day, allow this message to permeate the narratives you tell yourself and others about your individual power, influence and impact. Allow it to shape a new story about what matters; and more importantly, who matters. Own it, believe it, act on it. And make it count. 

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