This week, Oxfam Australia released its shocking report What She Makes. The report outlined what many of us working in the garment industry suspected: that major Australian brands such as Big W, Kmart, Target and Cotton On are not paying their workers a living wage. Women in Bangladesh and Vietnam working for Australia’s $23.5 billion fashion industry were being paid as little as 51 cents an hour. A vast majority of women interviewed simply could not make ends meet.
At the same time, Cotton On’s homepage for its Australian site touts an International Women’s Day promotion, where you can buy a $20 t-shirt and Cotton On will make a $10 donation (although who or where that donation goes is unspecified and the links to the promotion no longer function). They are also selling a ‘girl power’ collection of tees being sold at two for $30. Target sells girl power pyjamas for $18.
You don’t need to be a genius to see the problem here: buying a cheap feminist tee from a fast fashion brand does not mean you support girl power. It means you support a patriarchal system of oppression. You are part of the problem.
40 million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery, and more than 70% of those people are women. People at the bottom of all supply chains have it incredibly tough and fashion is one of the most exploitative industries. The garment industry is the largest employer of women worldwide and these are mostly young, rural migrant women. Fashion is an inescapably feminist issue and the scale of the problem cannot be overstated.
We have been shown time and again that brands will continue to squeeze the life out of women as long as we continue to buy underpriced t-shirts. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that the Spice Girls’ Comic Relief shirt was stitched by women getting paid 45 cents an hour. A University of California Berkeley study released last month found that in India, the finishings for most major brands were done by young women being paid around 19 cents an hour. The stories of exploitation and abuse are a daily occurence. We simply aren’t doing well enough: we are leaving too many women behind.
There is no longer any excuse for self identifying feminists in western countries to buy clothing that puts women in danger of falling into the modern slavery system. We can’t march the streets in girl power shirts that were made by a woman earning pennies. While we all love a bargain, we should be able to wake up to this hypocrisy, and to recognise that women working under soul-destroying conditions are deliberately obscured from our collective view. We’re better than this.
Yes, we need to look at larger structural problems in order to overcome these systems of oppression. But we each have a small role to play as wearers of clothing, as consumers of cloth. We need to be smarter and look deeper. It takes fewer than thirty seconds to read a label, and less than a minute to whip out your phone and google the ethical credentials of the store you’re visiting.
International Women’s Day began over a hundred years ago as a way to bring together international movements of equality and liberation. Perhaps the world is fragmented in new ways, but our capacity as women to create international movements for change has never been more globalized. If 2018 was the year that we said time’s up for sexual harassment, maybe 2019 can be the year that we collectively decide the clock has run out on fast fashion.
Photos sourced from Cotton On Australia and Comic Relief