What does fashion have to do with International Women's Day?
On International Women’s Day, we celebrate women’s achievements, reflect on the improvements we’ve made and take action for equality, justice and respect. While it’s amazing to see more and more people standing up for equality, there are still countless issues being faced by women and girls around the world today. But what exactly does IWD have to do with fashion? Well, gender inequality is an enormous issue for many industries, and the fashion industry is no exception.
Women are by far the primary consumers of fashion and while it’s beautiful that clothes bring joy to so many women around the world by allowing them to express themselves, it is also important to highlight that they remain underrepresented in leading positions in the fashion industry. In fact, only 40% of womenswear fashion brands are led by female designers, and only 14% of the 50 major fashion brands are run by women.
However, when we ask #WhoMadeMyClothes, the answer is most often women. Globally, 70-80% of workers in the ready-made garment sector are women aged 18-25, while the 2018 Global Slavery Index and 2020 Stacked Odds report have shown that women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to modern slavery, accounting for 71% of all victims. This means that today, 29 million or at least one in 130 women and girls are being exploited for personal or commercial gain, and garments are the second most likely product category produced under such conditions.
Inequality in the garment industry
It is often believed that employment in the fashion industry can help lift women out of poverty and actually should be seen as a step towards female empowerment, however, the reality is far more complex. While many of those countries that are dominant in the garment industry, including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia, have experienced economic growth due to investments from large companies in the fashion industry, the benefits have not been shared fairly with the garment workers at the bottom of fashion supply chains. A large proportion of mostly female garment workers are still paid far below the minimum wage, often making as little as €0.25 - €0.60 per hour.
These incredibly low wages are a sign of grave inequality and exploitation that also cause a number of other problems. Not only do they make it difficult to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her family, but they also make it practically impossible to save any extra money and look for better work. Because of this, the majority of garment workers are trapped in their low-paying positions, with those in higher positions taking advantage of them. Unsafe labor conditions, excessive amounts of overtime as well as mental, physical and sexual abuse are only a few of the issues many girls and women in the fashion industry are often faced with.
What can I as a consumer do?
It is safe to say that there is a lot of work that remains to be done but the good news is that we can all help raise awareness, and demand brands and retailers to step up for equality. The not-for-profit global movement Fashion Revolution makes it easy for everyone to get involved by offering an email template you can fill out and send to your favorite brands in only a matter of minutes. By doing this, you will show brands that you care for women’s rights and want to know if they have policies in place that ensure all workers are treated and paid fairly and are safe from harassment and abuse. You can find the template here.
Since the connection between gender equality and ethical fashion is still widely unknown by the general public, something else you can start doing today is spreading awareness among your friends, family and social media followers.
Another powerful way to achieve change is to stop supporting those brands and retailers that contribute to inequality and exploitation; instead, support women-owned labels that empower other women. Research the brands you usually buy from and try to find out more about their supply chains, and whether they are committed to paying fair wages and protecting workers’ rights. A useful tool that can help you get informed is Good On You, a website and app that rates brands based on their impact on people, animals and the planet.
Organizations fighting for equality in the fashion industry
Fortunately, there are a number of organizations fighting for equality in the fashion industry, such as Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign and Global Fund for Women. You can follow them on Instagram and keep an eye out for future campaigns and petitions to help them speak up for women’s rights around the world.