WOMEN AND THE GARMENT INDUSTRY: POWERFUL CONSUMERS, MARGINALIZED WORKERS

This is the first in a series of posts focused on women in the clothing and garment industry. Subsequent posts will focus on women in the global garment supply chain.

When you buy clothes, do you think about where they came from? Do you wonder who made them? Do you know that different components of one item of clothing may be made by workers in several countries? Indeed, it is likely that our everyday attire traversed the globe before getting to us. If you were like me a few years ago, you probably didn’t think about such questions even if you noted the ubiquitous “Made In…” labels or were aware of where much of our food comes from.

But it is high time for more of us to ask these, and other, questions about the clothes we wear.

The global fashion industry is valued at $2.4 TRILLION (or $2,400 billion). In fact, not only does this industry literally touch everyone, but also it would be the world’s seventh-largest economy if ranked alongside individual countries’ gross domestic products. While the total number of workers in this industry is not known, in 2014 the textile, clothing, and footwear sector worldwide was estimated to employ about 60 million to 75 million people, three quarters of whom were women.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy to recount the innumerable ways that those women are marginalized in the fashion and garment industry.

To start with, women are underrepresented in leadership positions across the sector. To be specific, the number of women leading the 15 largest mass-market apparel companies on the Fortune 500 list is zero. Even in the “higher end” fashion industry, the majority of fashion houses are still helmed by male designers. Of the 371 designers leading the 313 brands at the world’s four main fashion weeks, only 40.2% were female. The latest evidence of the continued marginalization of women occurred in the recent slew of global fashion weeks’ acknowledgement that the #Metoo movement had revealed egregious male behavior in this world, too. Female models themselves have been speaking out about abuse, body shaming, and racism.

This marginalization of even the most powerful women in the garment and fashion industry — models, designers and other leaders — underscores the challenges that women at the “bottom” of this industry and global supply chain face. Imagine the lives of the 80% of the world’s garment workers who are women. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of these women live in low wage nations. Yes, global supply chains provide critical jobs and capital that have helped women workers improve their standard of living and support their families. Yes, these global garment supply chains have also spurred broader economic growth in several nations and are propelling their transformation from low to middle income status. However, all these amazing changes could also occur with substantially greater improvements in women’s rights.

Unfortunately, in many situations, women garment workers are vulnerable and face a host of challenges ranging from low wages and unsafe working conditions to domestic violence and a dearth of affordable housing. In fact, bonded labor is a reality for some women in the garment industry. For example, in southern India, 80% of workers in cotton spinning mills are women and most are adolescent girls from lower castes. These young girls are paid below the legal minimum wage and face a range of sexual and physical abuse.

As consumers, we are a crucial part of the fashion and garment industry — in fact, we fuel its activities. Our desire for fashion, especially “fast” fashion at low prices, drives a global industry to find the most profitable means by which to satisfy and create ever more demand for its products.

As a feminist lawyer concerned about human rights, social justice, and sustainability, I now see the inextricable link between the clothes I buy and the quality of the lives of people around the world. Our purchasing decisions impact the lives of millions of women who make these clothes or are involved in the manufacture of the fibers or other raw materials from which they are made. These women workers range from designers to garment workers employed in factories to workers in the “informal” clothing manufacturing process to women bonded laborers. The way our clothing is made also has profound implications for our planet’s health. Did you know that acrylic and polyester are usually petroleum-based products? In contrast, clothes made from sustainable or organic cotton and using vegetable dyes are far more likely to be more “green.”

Women consumers have a unique opportunity to create positive changes for the planet and the millions of us who work in the fashion industry. Why do we have this power? Because women constitute the overwhelming majority of the consumer base for the garment and fashion industry. So now it is time to demand information about the hands — and, yes, lives — of the women who make the clothes that touch our bodies. This is yet another way to be a stronger voice for equality.

The next post in this series will focus on women workers in the garment supply chain and will include a discussion of Bangladesh.

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