On this International Women’s Day, activists are calling out fashion brands for celebrating women via their merchandise and on social media platforms despite playing a major role in their modern day oppression. The cruel irony is that it’s highly likely your fave feminist slogan t-shit was made by a woman working under horrendously expoitative conditions. Out of an estimated 40 million garment workers worldwide, 90 percent are women and girls, but they don’t even receive their legal minimum hourly wage 64 percent of the time. On top of that, 80 percent of the wealthiest people working in the fashion industry are men. All ten of “The Top 10 Billionaires in Fashion” listed for 2017 were men, with nine out of ten being white. Ultimately, it’s these men that get to spend the profit from that International Women’s Day-themed ‘fit, not the women that made them. The brutal treatment of garment workers is nothing new, and neither is the co-option of political ideas by corporations for brownie points. However, the fast fashion industry has only exacerbated these issues. To make things more complicated, the rise of social media adds another layer of ethical depravity in what activists are calling “greenwashing.”
So, what is greenwashing? Greenwashing is a marketing tactic that brands, especially fashion brands, use to create the illusion of having ethical values and using sustainable, fair-trade practices. Unfortunately, it is our responsibility as consumers to determine if these claims are truthful or just a harmful facade. Ethical fashion advocates Ruth MacGilp and Alice Cruickshank explain that, “people shop with their values now, but brands haven’t changed theirs. They’ve just changed the way they communicate them.” To learn more about this sneaky ethical illusion, I really recommend listening to Ruth and Alice’s podcast Common Threads where they share their insights on the ubiquitousness of greenwashing and how it harms the women of the global south.
While social media has made it easier to voice opinions and organize change through community action, it has also normalized brands blatantly lying to their customers. Brands no longer have the option to stay silent, so they’ll often resort to making a vague post using general language that alludes to a certain social issue without actually identifying the ways in which their business aligns with the cause. As a result, we’re forced to do a lot of investigating to make sure we aren’t being sold social issues without the substance to back it up.
Some red flags to be aware of:
Claiming to have future goals but a lack of any current initiatives
Diverting attention away from harmful business operations by emphasising one initiative but failing to address all areas of impact
Announcing a few easy but insignificant issues to work on, especially if they’re only implemented at the top offices
Being aware of this dangerous hypocrisy is not enough to put an end to it, so what else can we do at the consumer level? First, you can sign petitions from Global Labour Justice here: https://globallaborjustice.org/alleyesonfastfashion/ Secondly, we need to take responsibility for the power we have to bring about concrete change. We must acknowledge that holding ourselves to the standards of ethically-conscious consumerism will ultimately force the market to bend to our demands. This means harnessing your curiosity and researching brands in order to better understand their production process and labor conditions. If there is evidence of sweatshops and child labor, expose that knowledge publically and pressure fashion brands into taking responsibilty at the corporate level. In addition to transparency, it is essential that we avoid overconsumption at all costs. Invest in clothing either by shopping second-hand or renting instead of jumping on the next short-lived fashion trend. As always, try to donate and recycle your old clothing whenever you can. It may not seem like much, but the efforts to be ethically conscious consumers go a long way, especially when you consider that 8% of global pollution is attributed to fast fashion.
For International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month this year, let’s dedicate ourselves to making a difference in every way we can, because choosing ignorance is no longer an option.