“25 On-Trend Shoes to Shop at Zara Immediately.” “Gigi Hadid Rocked a Cute AF Sweater From H&M and You Need It.” “These Zara pearl biker boots are what your January needs.” “Forever 21’s new Riley Rose beauty stores have everything you need.” “H&M's stylish, eco-friendly sport collection is out!” “Zara's Winter Sale Is Finally Here!”
These are a few of the recent headlines from mainstream fashion publications. Coupled with striking street style photos and click-garnering celebrities, they all promote fast fashion. This an interesting – and perplexing – approach in the current climate if you think about it, and one that is worthy of discussion.
At a time when women-centric activism is at a high, the feminist movement continues to gain steam, particularly in the U.S., and hordes of women are speaking out in an attempt to help rid workplaces of the rampant culture of sexual harassment and other abuses, the fact that the fashion media continues to overlook the women in the supply chain – particularly in connection with fast fashion (the focus here is fast fashion, as this is the segment of the market where abuses are unequivocally the most frequent) – is problematic.
If you take a look at the well-established lack of oversight in terms of safety within the confines of many garment factories, as confirmed by the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, the array of subsequent on-site fires, and the environmental damage born from the creation and subsequent discarding of fast fashion (a cycle upon which this market very heavily relies), the incessant campaign for fast fashion by the media is bewildering, as it opts to overlook the grave abuses that routinely face women in the garment manufacturing sector.
The Reality of the Supply Chain
Historically, apparel manufacturing has been one of the most female-dominated industries in the world. As a result, it has provided unskilled women with jobs and incomes that they otherwise might not have been able to achieve. However, those jobs almost always come with an ugly downside of abuse, thereby forcing women to choose between financial freedom and their personal well-being.
The reality of the supply chain for many Western brands – including more upwardly situated ones – is that manufacturing has shifted away from more established manufacturing centers, such as China, because these goods have simply become “too expensive” to source.
New low cost manufacturing centers, such as Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Pakistan, among other southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries, which tend to boast wages that are among the lowest in the world, have emerged as international hubs. Their ability to offer some of the lowest-cost apparel manufacturing has attracted traditional fast fashion retailers like H&M, Joe Fresh, Uniqlo, and Zara, and also less traditional fast fashion retailers, including those producing licensed brand name goods, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and the like.
Many of these manufacturing centers, in an effort to offer the most competitive production costs (and implicitly low labor costs) to land profitable supply contracts, have taken to circumventing labor laws and cutting labor costs by employing active “restriction on worker organization and collective bargaining” activities, particularly by contractors, thereby allowing owners to easily employ young women and subsequently force them out when they get married or pregnant, and to skirt paying laborers on time, sometimes forcing them to wait months for a paycheck without any oversight or ramifications.
Unionizing is a luxury for most garment workers. Women laborers have spoken out – often to no avail – about being harassed by employers for attempting to organize other laborers and inform them of their rights. Rukmini, president of the women-led Garment Labour Union, which is based in Karnataka, India, has had to negotiate with some factories to provide “even the most basic facilities like drinking water and ceiling fans, a necessity in a city where temperatures reach as much as [98.6 F] degrees.”
Factories in these relatively new low cost garment manufacturing havens thrive, almost entirely, due to the presence of “a large reserve of unskilled female laborers in the countryside willing to work for low wages in the garment factories (one of the few modern employment opportunities open to them),” and an “absence of collective bargaining or other mechanisms for enforcing the national minimum wage and other labor and safety protections,” according to a report from United Kingdom-based labor alliance, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing.
Women working in the garment manufacturing sector routinely suffer from “mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and reproductive health issues,” according to a November 2016 report from Equal Times on the state of garment manufacturing in India. This is an unsurprising finding, considering women garment workers regularly endure sexual harassment and workspaces which lack proper ventilation, the latter of which has given rise to widespread respiratory ailments among factory workers.
And none of this even touches upon the labor trafficking that is a huge problem globally, and is one which the garment manufacturing sector is not immune. As noted by both the U.S. Department of Labor and the Global Freedom Center, a U.S.-based non-profit organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking, forced labor in garment manufacturing persists globally. In some instances, women laborers are particularly susceptible to forced labor and labor trafficking as they often live far from the factory in which they work, meaning that they are dependent upon their employers for housing (usually dormitory-style living, complete with bunk beds and concrete flooring), food, and transportation.
A Sad Message
It is quite well-known at this point in time that garment manufacturing and textile industries in much of Southeast Asia – the site of many of the world’s manufacturing capitals – lack well-established legal protections and standards that weigh in favor of fairness and transparency for laborers, most of whom are women.
The existence of informal labor sectors in many of these low cost labor countries, coupled with the gender-specific vulnerabilities that garment factory owners and operators prey upon, make it so that while, women are being provided with employment opportunities in garment factories, they continue to fall victim to an array of abuses.
With the foregoing in mind, the consistent glamorization of fast fashion – without reflection in the abuses bestowed upon women in the process – is counterintuitive to the current push for women’s rights, and seems to send the message that efforts are only a priority for those women that exist on our home turf – aka in Hollywood, in the domestic workplace, in the most legally progressive and economically sound parts of the world.
Promotion of fast fashion should not come without discussions that shed light in the realities that face women in the manufacturing sector, including their right to employment that should not come at the expense of the observation of legal labor practices (at least in terms of Western law) and ethics concerns, safety standards, and an absence of gender discrimination. Anything short of this fails to do justice to the most recent pushes for women’s rights in the U.S. (and beyond) and loses sight of the larger battle for gender equality.