Fast Fashion is a Feminist Issue

—— Cover art by Annabelle (emscully.art) on Instragram

The term fast fashion was coined by the New York Times in the 1980s to describe Zara’s 15-day turnaround rate upon the store’s arrival in the US. This opened gates to overproduction, and waste, following in the footsteps of the culture of materialism, overconsumption and disposability. Over the past 15 years, people’s appetite for fast fashion has exploded and clothing production has doubled globally.

This rise in demand is pure fuel for the industry’s exploitative machine, making consumers disassociate from the very people (mostly women) who are making their clothes, as well as the environmental consequences of a system reliant on such rapid cycles.

The fast fashion industry was built on the exploitation of BIPOC women and their labor, with the majority of garment workers being Asian and Southwestern women. Approximately 85% of garment workers are young women aged 18-24 who earn less than $3 per day. For each day of work, these garment workers are forced to meet incredibly high quotas of garments to fulfill, and not meeting these quotas, leads to them not being paid at all.

Due to lack of public awareness, and lack of government regulations, fast fashion brands have been able to keep this exploitation behind closed doors and are thus complicit in perpetuating the gender inequality and gender-based violence and harassments the industry was built on.

According to the Global Fund for Women:

  • 60% of Bangladeshi garment workers have reported feeling intimidated or threatened with violence at work
  • 68% of Cambodian female garment workers said they were made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work
  • 34% of Vietnamese female garment workers said they experienced physical harassment, including kissing, touching, or hitting
  • Female garment factory workers also experience harassment on their commutes to and from work.

Many workers are afraid to speak out and report this violence out of fear of retaliation.

“Retailers colonize us due to the cheap labor, exploit youth, and disrespect the dignity of workers, especially women and girls […]. It was countries that used to colonize us, now it’s larger corporations.”

Nazma Akter, executive director of the Awaj Foundation in Bangladesh.

To make matters worse, a year of COVID-19 lockdown has led to approximately 700 000 garment worker jobs have been lost or severely affected.

Fast Fashion and Waste

Waste in the fast fashion industry is immense. We are producing much more than we are consuming, and at the same time, we are consuming much more than we can actually use, creating excessive amounts of clothing and textile waste. The equivalent of one garbage truck of clothes are burned or landfilled every second, which amounts to about 82.7 billion kg of wasted clothing per year.

Due to fast fashion’s massive disposability and turn-over rates, the Global North’s waste crisis has developed a secondhand clothing supply chain that millions of people in Ghana, the second largest importer in the world, have to deal with and rely on. When all of this foreign clothing began pouring in, it was called “Obruni Wawu” which translates to “dead white man’s clothes.” The hard truth is that most clothing is donated simply because fast-fashion requires turn-over, not attachment to our clothes. This waste crisis is caused by compounded exploitation, not by a lack of recycling technology.

The second hand clothing trade is rooted in colonialism, power dynamics, oppression, and injustices, which must be acknowledged and upended. What we consider secondhand is actually the primary supply chain for millions of people. If we want to solve fashion’s waste crisis, then we have to reckon with its colonial roots. Waste will either be the next frontier of colonialism and greenwashing, or waste will serve as an opportunity for greater reckoning or reparations.

The Garment Worker Protection Act (GWPA)

The GWPA is a California State Bill that will help enforce the minimum wage in apparel factories and hold brands jointly accountable when worker wages fall below the legal standard. This bill works to protect garment workers in the following ways:

  • Eliminating the piece-rate system and ensuring that garment workers are paid at least minimum hourly wage
  • Allowing for productivity bonuses on top of that wage
  • Holding manufacturers and brands accountable for wage violations
  • Strengthening the authority of the Labor Commissioner to investigate and cite wage violations further up the supply chain

This Act is not only relevant to California, as clothing manufactured in California is sold globally. The state is working toward becoming a sustainable and ethical fashion hub. This Act helps even the playing field for responsible companies by holding brands that break the rules accountable.

This Act is one of several promising regulations that aims to strengthen worker rights in supply chains. Raising garment worker wages could be the beginning of the end of sweatshops making it much easier for consumers to shop with their values and for brands to more easily find responsible manufacturers.

This builds toward creating a fair and equitable landscape where ALL women can live healthy lives and thrive however they choose. But, until we get to that point, we still have work to do.

Across the entire supply chain, fast fashion is a women’s rights issue. So when you see fast fashion brands popping up on your feed, or sliding into you inbox with marketing emails about women’s empowerment, remember they are the very people fueling exploitation and continue to withhold payment from their factory workers.

How to Spot a Fast Fashion Brand

Even if fast fashion brands try to greenwash, but we must try and see through these lies. Quick turnarounds and cheap materials are their bread and butter – let’s try to avoid them if we can!

Here are some ways that you can spot which brands are fast fashion brands so you can start your own transition away from fast fashion, if you so desire.

  • They have thousands of trends. Fast fashion brands follow fashion trends closely and instantly respond by making thousands of styles they know people will buy for much cheaper prices.
  • Short turn around times for styles. They have their eyes on celebrities’ social media posts, and fashion catwalks and almost instantly create copycat designs in the same styles.
  • Limited quantity of a particular garment. New stock arrives every few days, so brands want to get rid of them quickly. they also frequently use urgency messaging to encourage impulsive consumption.
  • Cheap, low quality materials. New trends are always coming and going, so fast fashion brands try to use the cheapest material to sell the clothes quickly and make high profit margins. This also encourages overconsumption, as the clothes tend to not last very long.

Activists and Organizations

Slow, ethical fashion should not be a radical act, but the standard. Here are some sustainable fashion activists and organizations/brands that I know of and that you can follow for more information on how to go about your own sustainable fashion journey.

Global fashion movements Fashion Revolution and Re/Make have been raising public awareness on the women behind our garments, their working conditions and low wages with impactful campaigns that demand transparency and accountability from large fast fashion companies.

Women in India, Bangladesh, and Ghana, to name a few places, are also constantly protesting, unionizing and fighting for their right to higher wages and better, safer working conditions. However, due to biases and white-savior complexes in Western media, these protests are not widely covered or known about.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) is an Asian labor-led global labor and social alliance across garment producing countries (such as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bangladesh) and consumer regions (USA and Europe) for addressing poverty level wages, gender discrimination, and freedom of association in global garment production networks.

Global Labor Justice is a new strategy hub supporting transnational collaboration among worker and migrant organizations to expand labor rights and new forms of bargaining on global value chains and international labor migration corridors. They work with grassroots worker and migrant organizations to promote long term change in policy and corporate practice that prevents labor exploitation leading up to and including modern day slavery and promotes innovative accountability structures that respond to the increasingly globalized economy.

PayUp Fashion is a coalition of activists and organizations who are fighting for a fashion industry that treats workers fairly and with respect. They evolved out of the viral #PayUP campaign which pressures 24 major apparel brands to pat back over $20 billion that they owed suppliers for orders that were cancelled during the pandemic. Securing this money helped ensure that suppliers could pay their workers during the early months of the pandemic, averting a humanitarian crisis for workers on the poverty line.

The Garment Worker Center (GWC) is a worker rights organization whose mission is to organize low-wage garment workers in LA in the fight for social and economic justice. GWC addresses the systemic problems of wage theft, and unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, including the sponsoring of the GWPA.

Back Beat Co. is a California-based lifestyle brand that prioritizes the ethical and social responsibility of every aspect of creating, producing and selling clothes over profit margins. They are also a BIPOC and woman-owned business. I recently purchased a sweater from this company that I am very happy to show off. This sweater was designed in partnership with Intersectional Environmentalist (IE) to create an eco-conscious capsule collection centered on our shared mission of protecting the planet and its people. Each piece from this collection is locally and ethically-made in LA from recycled cotton and line sewn and dyed at Back Beat Co.’s family-owned fabric houses in LA. This collection also features original art designs from IE’s graphicsandgrain.

Megan McSherry runs a sustainable fashion blog, and her TikTok is what first got me more interested in starting to make changes to my own fashion choices, embark on my own sustainable fashion journey, and advocate for garment workers.

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