Writing: Ilse Alfonsi
Illustration: Jing Lu
Maria Grazia Chiuri opened the Dior Spring/Summer 2018 Ready-To-Wear fashion show with a t-shirt quoting Linda Nochlin’s famous essay, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’. In December 2014, Elle released their first ever Feminism Issue, which was complemented by celebrities and politicians – including Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ed Miliband – donning slogan t-shirts stating ‘This is what a feminist looks like.’ This slogan was created by the Fawcett Society (founded by the suffragist Millicent Fawcett), which is the ‘UK’s leading charity campaign for gender equality and women’s right(s).’ Superficially, these items of clothing seem innocent, until one looks to their source. These sloganized items were sold to the public by Whistles, a
UK fashion retailer, who collaborated with Elle for the Fawcett Society and sold the ‘iconic tee’ as sweaters, phone cases and clutches for the ‘modern feminist’ (the tee could also be purchased as an exciting pre-release for £45!). However, if one considers the conditions these items were likely produced in, are they truly a good advocate for feminism?
Whistles’ ‘Our Responsibility’ section – somewhat conveniently hidden at the bottom of their website – contains guidelines outlining their awareness of their environmental responsibility. However, we should be skeptical of these claims. Whistles states that they ‘are at the early stages of a social programme that reflects [their] commitment to provide people with dignified work, which enhances their livelihood by empowering them both socially and economically. Human rights, higher labour standards and a respect for the environment are at the centre of [their] programme, alongside [their] core values of fairness, integrity, transparency and collaboration.’ It furthers explains Whistles’ involvement with SCAP 2020 (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) beginning 2012, and that since 2015 they have become a part of the Ethical Trade Initiative who ‘influence businesses to act responsibly and promote decent work,’ thus tackling the ‘complex challenges of today’s global supply chains, improving the lives of workers worldwide.’ They continue by claiming that they are working towards making the fashion industry less polluting – something that, if actually put into action, could potentially ameliorate the pressing need to reduce global warming, as fast fashion is the second largest pollutant on the globe.
Fast fashion, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries, refers to ‘inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.’ The most important terms here are ‘inexpensive’ and ‘rapidly,’ signifying how the production of these items is normally run. From beginning to end, labourers are exposed to unfair and dangerous working conditions. The growing of cotton seeds can leave farmers in great debt as prices are extortionately high, whilst polyester is contributing to pollution as it is made from petroleum oil and coal. Keep in mind these are only two examples of the many different polluting and unethical ways in which raw materials are produced. During the farming process, pesticides are used and often end up spreading to areas outside of the field, thus damaging public health and the environment. The materials produced in factories further contribute to air and water pollution, especially in regards to the dyeing process. An estimated ten to fifteen percent of dye ends up in wastewater, effectively killing wildlife and crops. It has been reported that forty to fifty thousand tonnes of dye are discharged into the global water system per year, thus further contributing to global water pollution. Further, on a human rights level, the production of the actual garments includes long working hours, poor conditions, and low wages (to ensure the clothing items maintain their competition in the fast fashion market). Designers are forced to turn towards the runway for instant inspiration, as each week new items are churned out for the pleasure of the masses. Exploited workers are often forced to live in slums as a result.
These conditions are disgraceful, yet more shocking is retailers’ unwillingness to be directly associated with these factories – they do not own them, and this means that they are not responsible for the upkeep of the building and the treatment of the workers. It was on 24th April 2013 when the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, making it the deadliest structural failure in modern history. It took the lives of 1134 people for the truth behind the fast fashion industry – of which Zara, H&M, and Urban Outfitters are some of the leading figures – to finally be made public, and to emphasise the importance of transparency in the fashion business.
Of course, being one hundred percent ethical and sustainable is difficult to achieve. This ‘supermarket’ fashion is incredibly powerful and, if at all possible, it will take plenty of time to dismantle it. Furthermore, not everyone has the means to buy haute couture, or even clothes from independent brands that are producing their items in ethical and sustainable ways, which tend to be quite expensive and often not as aesthetically appealing as fast fashion clothing items. If you must buy from from these retailers, frequent the shops less, or perhaps turn to charity shops or vintage stores; no one is weekly in need of new clothes!
To the everyday shopper, the fashion industry can be incredibly confusing. The guidelines listed on retailers’ websites are not the easiest to understand unless you are already aware of certain abbreviations or different laws – this could be done consciously by retailers to ensure that they can keep producing clothes at the speed they do without seeming ignorant of the current issues. Turning back to Whistles, their general rule is that all of their suppliers and subcontractors must always follow the national law of their respective country in which they are based, meaning working conditions differ from country to country; they are basically claiming that they do not have control over the treatment of the environment and the factory’s workers as they do not own the property. However, bonded labour – something all too common in the fast fashion industry – is modern day slavery. The ‘slaves’ working for these companies (in horrible and high-risk environments) tend to be women, as they are expected to know how to sew. Thus, in combination with the conditions these workers are put through and the environmental impact of production, these t-shirts are not truly feminist – anyone concerned with issues of social justice and environmentalism must acknowledge this.