Empowerment vs. Exploitation: Women in the Fast Fashion Industry

Victoria Kachanov
Mar 15 · 6 min read

Fashion has been a means of empowerment for women of many generations, but the sweatshop conditions of fast fashion workers tell a different story.

Image Attribution: Adam-Smith Institute

In light of this month’s International Women’s Day, it is important to discuss feminism, female empowerment, and female exploitation in fashion.

Over time, with the growth of feminism and the spread of women’s rights movements, fashion has granted women the autonomy to make choices that allow them to express their own unique style and identity through their clothes, thus cultivating a newfound confidence, and serving as a source of empowerment.

Fast fashion has made this easier than ever for consumers, providing a myriad of fabrics and patterns for them to choose from at increasingly affordable prices.

Image Attribution: Matteo Scarpellini/IMAXTREE.COM

The fast fashion industry commercializes feminism and female empowerment by marketing apparel ranging from totes to T-shirts, adorned with feminist slogans and riddled with messages of feminist consciousness.

While there doesn’t seem to be anything explicitly wrong with this, when you consider the lives of those who produced these clothes, feminism doesn’t seem to be very important to the industry.

Close to 80% of the people involved in garment production, an industry consisting of roughly 75 million workers, are women aged 18 to 24, with a majority of them earning less than $3 a day, according to nonprofit organization Remake.

Image Attribution: Clean Clothes Campaign

It is estimated that less than 2% of garment workers earn a living wage, while being forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Many fast fashion retailers dodge responsibility regarding wages by stating that they pay their workers the ‘legal minimum wage.’

However, in most garment manufacturing countries, the minimum wage represents between half to a fifth of the living wage, or the bare minimum that a family requires to fulfill its basic needs.

Fast fashion brands are complicit in preserving the industry’s cycles of gender inequality and gender-based violence and harassment.

An infographic from the Global Fund of Women revealed that:

In Bangladesh, over 60% of female garment workers have reported feeling intimidated or threatened with violence at work.

68% of Cambodia’s female garment workers have reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable at work.

In Vietnam, 34% of female garment workers reported experiencing physical harassment, including kissing, touching, or hitting, at work.

As a result of a culture of impunity and a fear of stigmatization, abuse goes frequently unreported, unnoticed, and unaddressed.

In addition to this, workers must toil in unsafe, cramped, dirty, and poorly ventilated factories, in conditions that the UN has declared an “an environmental and social emergency.”

They frequently develop physical ailments as result of their fast-paced, strenuous working requirements and exposure to toxic chemicals, all in an effort to earn a living wage, while being payed mere cents per garment produced.

Most of our clothing is made in places where workers’ rights are nonexistent, and these inhumane working conditions go unchecked, leading to deadly disasters like the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013, a tragedy that killed over a thousand people at the hand of negligence.

Image Attribution: Clean Clothes Campaign

These issues often go underrepresented on the news as well, and Western media doesn’t always show the constant protests of women for their right to better wages and safer working conditions in countries such as India and Bangladesh.

While the Rana Plaza factory collapse has led to the founding of numerous nonprofit organizations determined to make change in the industry, including Remake and Fashion Revolution, systematic exploitation remains rife almost a decade after, and the atrocities of fast fashion continue.

Over the last 15 years, garment production has doubled globally, with the average consumer purchasing 60% more clothing than 15 years ago, while keeping it for half as long.

The fast fashion brands’ rush to get new clothes into stores has bred a materialistic, throwaway culture, opening the gates to overconsumption, overproduction, and waste, in turn fueling the industry’s exploitative machine.

Image Attribution: AP / Wong Maye-E

This largely unregulated ‘use-and-throw’ mindset is detrimental to the environment, ruining the homes of these workers and our planet as a whole.

The fast fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry.

According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, if current cycles don’t change, more than 150 million tonnes of clothing will end up in landfills or be incinerated in the year 2050, which is enough to fill the Great Wall of China twice over.

Untreated, toxic wastewater from textile factories is dumped directly into rivers, posing immense danger for aquatic organisms and the health of the millions of people living near them.

Furthermore, the industry is a major water consumer, with the production of one cotton shirt requiring 2,700 liters of water.

This places tremendous pressure on this already scarce resource, causing many garment-producing countries to face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production or securing clean drinking water.

The industry’s mindset places consumers’ desire for goods and profit on a higher pedestal than actual human lives, while exercising performative ‘feminism’ in their marketing to present an image of heightened awareness of women’s rights for capitalistic gains, or ‘femwashing.’

Fast fashion is undoubtedly a women’s issue — it disproportionately disempowers women, and ‘feminism’ at the price of other women’s exploitation isn’t inherently feminist, nor is it empowering.

These patterns have led consumers to detach from the very people making their clothes, who are mostly women, and the environmental consequences of a system reliant on such rapid cycles.

Even so, using shame to incite change amongst consumers isn’t the solution.

Blaming personal consumer choices for a systemic problem shifts the focus from the real stakeholders who should be held accountable: fast fashion companies.

Moreover, shaming is a tool that has plagued the policing of women’s bodies for far too long, and shaming women for their purchases is an oxymoron to female empowerment.

While a plethora of consumers in privileged communities abuse fast fashion, for some low-income consumers, it is the only affordable and accessible way to purchase clothing, and concern for workers can quickly turn into elitism towards the working class consumers on the other end.

So while it is imperative to move to more ethically and environmentally safe alternatives to fast fashion, we must accept that not all will be able to do this and we shouldn’t shame those who are unable to.

We must all strive to avoid overconsumption and keep our garments for longer.

And if you’re able, avoid fast fashion brands and ensure that the garments that you do purchase are ethically made by purchasing sustainably or secondhand to be sure that the clothing you’re wearing isn’t just empowering you, but putting real power into the hands of the woman who made it.

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