The Women Behind Fast Fashion: Sustainable Fashion's Fight for Gender Equality
Updated: Jun 24
When talking about sustainable fashion it is important to look beyond what is obvious to us consumers. We are currently trapped in the vicious circle of fast fashion where overproduction, cheaply made clothes, mass-consumption, and overflowing landfills have somewhat become ‘normal’. Clothes have been made so available and replaceable that we no longer value them or the work that flows into them. In order to move towards a more responsible production and consumption of fashion, the industry and the consumers must join forces. It is thus crucial to gain awareness about how the industry operates on different levels and how it impacts on the overall health of society and the environment.
At the heart of the definition of and dedication to sustainable fashion are gender equity and human rights.
The business of fast fashion has been fueled by the exploitation of resources and people, notably people of color and women. These very real effects of fast fashion, the pollution of land and communities and the exploitative working conditions for women garment workers are unacceptable. It is impossible to promote planetary health through sustainable fashion without also considering the women who are intricately connected to and exploited by fast fashion.
"Industrial wastewater containing hazardous chemicals discharged into the Cihaur River, a tributary of the Citarum River." (Greenpeace.org, 2018)
The harms of fast fashion are well known but acknowledging them still seems optional for many of us. As consumers, we must educate ourselves and actively question our choices.
Cheap clothing comes with a high price – garment workers are exploited, vulnerable communities are exposed to pollution and harmful chemicals, waterways are filled with micro-plastics from synthetic clothing, unsold garments are burnt or landfilled releasing toxic gases.
Consumers can easily encourage ethical and healthy production processes by supporting small-scale production, independent and local businesses, and by ensuring that fashion companies guarantee protection and security for their workers. Blindly following fleeting fashion trends and carelessly ordering clothing online just because it’s convenient is outdated and consumers should instead search for timeless designs made with natural fibers, organic or recycled fabrics. It is also extremely important to know how to care for your clothes in order to extend their lifecycle. Instead of throwing them away, you can try to repair, reuse or repurpose them or simply swap them with your friends or donate them to charity.
There is a pressing need for consumers to slow down and make conscious and informed choices about how to buy better. Fast fashion negatively affects female garment workers in a myriad of ways. Garment workers are generally not paid a living wage and work in harsh conditions. In many countries where there exist garment factories, the legal minimum wage paid to female garment workers does not match up to costs of living. Oxfam reports that typically less than 5% of the retail price of a garment is actually going to the workers despite the fact that fast fashion brands largely have the capital to ensure a wage that reflects living costs for their female garment workers.
Furthermore, it is well-documented that female garment workers experience negative physical and mental health outcomes from the environment and the nature of their work. Many female garment workers experience violence and sexual harassment in the factories they work in resulting in trauma, depressive disorders, and stress. The nature of the work these women are performing (repetitive motion) and of the working environment (hazardous environmental conditions and lack of safety equipment) also put women at risk of physical injury and ill health including musculoskeletal injury and dysfunction, digestive disorders, vision and hearing issues, dermatological problems, as well as contributing to and exacerbating other health issues.
What can you do about it?
As a solution, there are initiatives like Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign calling for fast fashion companies and governments to ensure fair working conditions and wages. In addition, sustainable fashion initiatives and brands offer an alternative to the exploitation of fast fashion. Accountability and transparency along supply chains and on factory conditions are becoming the norm of sustainable brands.
Fairtrade and Fair Wear Foundation certify that brands provide fair working conditions and wages to those who work for them. Good On You is another resource that rates brands according to their impact on people including policies on child labor, worker safety, and fair wage. On another note, the move to smaller, independent labels has also passed the mic to women, and specifically women of color who historically have been the leaders of sustainability. Brands like AAKS put women, sustainability (for the environment and the women team members) and traditional craftsmanship on the spotlight with their hand-woven bags made in Ghana. Whether it is accountable, transparent fashion brands or smaller, independent creators and artisans, there are plenty of ways to consume fashion in an equitable way for those creating your pieces.
*About the authors: Inspired by the United Nations’s twelfth sustainable development goal Responsible Production and Consumption, obj.12 is a student-led sustainable fashion awareness collective created by Grace Cave, Lisa Lorang, Rachel Rayhab & Lauren Ramdin at City, University of London. Our goal is to inspire, engage, and inform others about fashion’s effect on the planet and in turn our health as human beings.