Feminist slogans have become a fashion trend. Fuelled by the “MeToo”-movement, women have become more outspoken about their values. Before, many women were hesitant to call themselves feminists because they were worried about the public response. Fortunately, this has changed – even to an extent that the fashion industry has been capitalizing on the “girlpower” trend. It is cool to wear a T-shirt uplifting women. Fashion shows with feminist messages are celebrated across the media. Influencers in black and white outfits (including the obligatory white sneakers) are telling me with a duckface-selfie that they also believe in girlpower. There are countless “challenges” across Instagram who aim to “lift other women up” by posting pictures of yourself and tagging women who inspire you.
I appreciate every advancement in the feminist movement, however small it may be. Initially, I also appreciated the social media “challenges” or when fashion designers include slogans on their T-shirts. I thought if it helps to spread the word about the cause, it cannot harm, right?
Awareness is great. But for quite some time, I have the feeling that these are only superficial commitments. What has become “greenwashing” for environmental issues, is also applied in the feminist context: messages are taken out of context, the root causes are not being addressed or, feminism is currently seen as a cool trend fuelling sales. I would like to call it “pinkwashing”.
I was intrigued and did some research for feminist merchandise and fashion. British retailer Boohoo offers a “girlpower”-T-shirt at GBP 6.40 (sale price, the original one was generous GBP 8). Spreading a feminist message on a “cheap” T-shirt – is this really the right way?
Think about it: this T-shirt had to be made by someone, then it was shipped, maybe there were customs fees involved if it came from outside of your home country. How much did the person who made the T-shirt really earn? “Cheap” usually comes at someone else’s expense.
I am asking about that specific person because a large part of garment workers are women. According to the World Bank, the apparel industry is a major driver “for young women and workers with limited skills and education […] to transition into formal jobs with regular wages”. In general, a positive development. But is it really fair and “uplifting” to know that the woman who made your T-shirt probably earned way below your country’s minimum wage to help you spread your feminist message?
If we assume a 30% margin (which is common and at the lower spectrum of the fashion industry), of a GBP 8 T-shirt, GBP 5.6 cover the production and supply chain. Realistically, if we take into account the many steps in the process, it will leave the garment worker with GBP 1 per T-shirt – probably even less.
We are now all thinking about exploitation of women in developing countries such as Bangladesh. Since I started building my own brand Pelagona, where I worked with women across the world, I realised that Asia and Africa are very often very far away in the minds of Europeans and Americans. Unfortunately, it feels that people struggle to relate to the problems in the developing world. But if you need an example closer to your home, let’s get back to the Boohoo T-shirt.
Boohoo has recently been accused of purchasing from factories in Leicester, UK, where workers earned GBP 3.50 per hour – less than half the UK minimum wage. Not only were exploitative work situations discovered but also that the factories operated during the coronavirus lockdown in Leicester. Consequently, they put workers at risk in a potentially hazardous environment. Paying less than the minimum wage and a hazardous workplace are two factors which are classified as “exploitative labour” by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Boohoo was “shocked and appalled” when they found out about the work environment. But I ask myself: Can any brand be that ignorant about what happens in their supply chain? Is it even possible to ignore it? If a company purchases at a certain price, they should at least think about whether it is realistic or not to produce the order respecting labour laws, minimum wages and safe work conditions.
The phenomenon of capitalising on women empowerment while at the same time “pinkwashing” or even exploiting women is not limited to brands in the lower segment. In 2014, Chanel and its then creative director Karl Lagerfeld were praised for their fashion show which ended with a demonstration for women’s rights. (Side note: Karl Lagerfeld was also the one who started a public fight with retailer H&M after their collaboration as his designs were sold up to European size 46 (US Size 12, UK 16). Lagerfeld was upset because his designs were meant for “slim and slender people”. I leave it to you to judge his approach to women.) In the Fashion Transparency Index by Fashionrevolution, Chanel ranks in the bracket of 11-20%. Brands scoring in this segement are likely to not publish any information about supplier lists or about topics such as forced labour, sustainable materials, or GENDER EQUALITY in their supply chains.
Similarly, Dior’s current creative head Maria Grazia Chiuri has been applauded for “striking female empowerment statements” in her collections. “Women Raise the Uprising” or “Sisterhood is global” are just two examples of the statements on T-shirts or during the fashion shows. Dior ranks at 26% of the Fashion Transparency Index: while they are likely to publish more information about their policies, they will still not be sharing the outcomes of their supplier assessments and are unlikely to publish insights about forced labour or gender equality.
Fellow woman-run brands such as Tory Burch (who runs mentor programmes and a fund for female designers) or celebrated Diane von Furstenberg rank as low as 0-5% in the index.
Another example in the lower segment is Primark, selling “uplifting” accessories for the “Everyday Goddess”. “She Is Fearless” is printed on one of their fabric bags. Primark obviously was also fearless to be among the many companies who immediately cancelled their orders at the start of the coronavirus measures in Europe and America.
The current pandemic is casting a spotlight on a notoriously sick fashion industry: most brands only pay their suppliers weeks or even months after finishing the orders. An ethical supply chain would involve paying in advance (at least a down payment) to balance the risk between suppliers and brands. Currently, the suppliers need to cover the cost upfront and take a substantial risk.
In response to decreased demand during the pandemic, brands and retailers have cancelled orders and even stopped payment for already placed orders. Thousands of factories were left alone with orders they had already produced. The big players took over no responsibility. According to Bloomberg, the cancellation of orders in Bangladesh alone in March 2020 amounted to USD 1.5 billion with over 1,000 factories affected. These were left with no other choice than to lay off workers. Needless to say, in countries like Bangladesh, there are is no support like in European countries with unemployment benefits or insurance.
After these practices made global news, brands such as H&M, Marks and Spencer and Target agreed to accept products which had already been produced or were in the process of being made. How generous! Sticking to contracts and paying for placed orders. As a small business owner, I pay my suppliers upfront and even in challenging times, I accepted the orders. Because we are partners and agreed to the terms. Global brands are instrumentalising their market power to transfer the risk over to the weaker ones.
This development puts the poorest at the risk – it will drive them out of the labour force or into informal work. It not only increases the wage gap but also challenges them to take care of their families. A few dollars a week may not seem much to the average European or American, but it is a lot if a whole family depends on them. Many of these garment workers who were left alone are women – where is the global sisterhood now?
Next time, you want to send a message, think about it if you want to do it with a superficial message on a T-shirt. You can send an even more powerful one by doing some research and supporting brands who practice what they preach. By buying from them and spreading their message, we can create a bigger and effective global sisterhood movement which really uplifts others and creates change.