There's a dark side to your girl power T-shirt – and it's directly hurting women

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International Women’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon the intersectional experiences of women, to celebrate the achievements of gender-equality movements, and to acknowledge the continued changes that need to be made. In short, it is a delightful day to look at the past, present, and future journey of feminism.

As with many internationally celebrated events, this day has been grabbed as an opportunity for big businesses to capitalise upon. With shiny pin badges and empowering slogans emblazoned across £5 T-shirts, one can proudly advocate for gender equality while sparing some change.

However, the production line involved in creating such garments extend far beyond the high street stores that proudly scream “Girl Power”.


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In a world of fast fashion, where clothing is produced at an unsustainable speed using unsustainable methods, in order to meet the breakneck pace of supply and demand, many high-street stores employ the labour of people in low wage economies.

As Bobbie Santa Maria of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre points out: “Global brands are quick to use female empowerment when marketing their products. But when they exert relentless pressure to get more products for less money, it’s women workers who pay the price.”

The garment production industry is built upon a workforce comprising approximately 80 per cent women. These women face conditions where low wages, gender-based violence and horrific working conditions are rife. Such mistreatment is not confined to  one country, one continent or one employer. The Breaking the Silence report by the Fair Wear Foundation highlights that in Uganda, 90 per cent of women surveyed had been sexually harassed at work by their male seniors. In Cambodia, nearly one in three female garment factory workers reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviour in the workplace in the 12 months prior to the study, while in Indonesia, 85 per cent of women garment workers were concerned about sexual harassment.

While stitching feminist slogans onto your shirts, these women are constantly in danger. 

Data from the 2019 Tailored Wage Report from the Clean Clothes Campaign, shows that zero workers within Asia, Africa, Central America or eastern Europe were paid enough to live with dignity. The assessment found that 31 out of 32 global leaders in the fashion industry cannot prove they pay their workers a living wage. Gucci was the only name proving they pay 25 per cent of their workers enough money to live on. 

Thirty-one popular retailers, including H&M, New Look, Missguided and Asos, could provide no evidence of paying any worker in their supply chain a living wage. No retailer could prove they pay 100 per cent of the workers in their supply chain a living wage.

Companies are not tied to this unethical form of production; they are able to pick and choose whether or not to exploit workers from low-wage economies, and they are choosing to keep these workers in poverty, in danger. To provide workers with a living wage they would have to increase the retail price of the garments. Pleasingly, data shows that even a 100 per cent wage increase would only raise retail prices between about 2 and 6 per cent, so it could be relatively seamless for companies to support their workers. However, it is apparent that this choice is not being made.

I like wearing my feminism on my sleeve, and fashion trends would suggest that I’m not alone. However, undermining one’s activism and exploiting the women you’re trying to protect in the name of a cheap top is not the way to expand the feminist rhetoric. Boycotting companies and their fake empowerment is a way forward and does not necessarily mean that you cannot wear fun, funky, feminist clothing. One option is upcycling clothes you already own with responsibly sourced badges and patches or purchasing items such as this T-shirt by Shado, which supports the Alliance for Choice foundation.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate feminism, and to acknowledge the intersectional and multifaceted experiences of women across the world. An effortless way to stand in solidarity with women facing horrific exploitation in the name of fast fashion is to not buy into its shiny charms. Feminism can be practised in several ways. You can wear your politics on a T-shirt, make your own badges, or create your own slogans. You can employ grassroots activism and join organisations such as Women’s Strike Assembly. You can donate to and support charities supporting the intersectional experiences of women. You can boycott corporations existing upon the exploitation of women: a shirt expressing one’s desire to empower women is pointless if it is disempowering a number of workers. Shout your feminism from the non-exploitative rooftops, buy ethically sourced clothes, and – wherever possible – do not support the vast number of corporations which exist upon the exploitation of women.

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