Fast Fashion: The Fabric of Faux-Feminism
The unanimous embrace of fast fashion retailers has finally put the “in” in feminism. A slew of slogans meant to inspire and empower has officially caught the attention of major fast fashion brands like Forever 21, Topshop, and H&M. But what happens when your attempt to promote gender equality actually hurts more than it helps?
If you're unfamiliar with the term, fast fashion refers to brands that are able to quickly create runway-inspired pieces reflective of the most in-the-moment looks. And when I say quickly, I mean hundreds of thousands of products created in as little as three weeks. But fast fashion's ability to expedite mass trends isn't the only draw of this multi-billion dollar industry.
Unbelievably low prices +
Egregiously non-existent copyright laws on design +
A generation with more disposable income than ever before...
...have created one of the greatest symbiotic relationships in commercial history.
Why have one plain white shirt for $25 when you can have one in every color for $4.99 each? Although I want to stick to the faux-feminism component in this post, you can learn more about fast fashion's atrocities from this awesome segment by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.
While fast fashion and feminist ideology have experienced radical transformations in the last 20+ years, they only recently merged into a commodifiable entity. The advent of celebrity advocates like Beyoncé and Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior brought the collaboration to both mainstream pop music and high fashion: two of the most inarguably influential industries in today's economy. It was only a matter of time before the masses looked to fast fashion to recreate the looks of their favorite music and sartorial icons. And although the styles changed, the methods of creating them remained the same. That's right: magical elves don’t make your “G!RL POWER” shirt.
The above John Oliver piece says what we've all thought: “At a certain point, it’s hard not to look at those prices and wonder, how does any clothing company make money? Although, let’s be honest. You know the answer to that.”
Here's the ugly truth from a TEDx Talk by Maxine Bérdat: "About 80% of the people who work in the apparel industry are women. And 98% of them are not receiving a living wage." These workers, mostly underage (the youngest I've seen in documentaries are 12, posing as 18 year olds to maintain their jobs), are primarily located in countries with the largest exports of apparel: China, Vietnam, India, etc.
Most of them work an average of 14 hours/day and make less than $3/day (Forbes). And with no healthcare benefits or building code standards, they work in extremely hazardous conditions for those 14+ hours using harsh chemicals with little to no protective gear, poor lighting, and few (if any) emergency exits—major oversights that cause major human rights and PR nightmares like the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013.
But—and I can't believe there's more to this tragedy—third world female workers aren't the only ones who suffer when a feminist slogan tee is in demand. With the rise of photo sharing apps like Instagram and Pinterest, it's easier than ever to see a design you like from an indie illustrator be completely ripped off by a major brand. And while social media rants by designers and their loyal fans make the case for a David and Goliath situation, their story (more often than not) has a less happy ending. Outrageously low regulations on copyright rules is a hallmark of the entire fashion industry: that's why it's so easy to shop the trends for less.
And that's why the Forever21 "WILD FEMINIST" tee isn't just made by underage, underpaid sweatshop workers...it's also unoriginal.
Look, I know firsthand how hard it is to not shop at those places; I'm the queen of impatience (read more on that here) but when it came to wanting a garment celebrating my feminism, I knew I would be completely dishonoring my beliefs if I purchased something from a fast fashion brand.
That's why I'm proposing this: now that you know the horrors, work on buying less from fast fashion brands. You won't be perfect (I won't be either) but we as consumers are the only ones who can break the wheel. CEOs won't do it. Factory owners won't do it. It's got to come from us.
Instead, buy straight from those indie designers you see on Instagram. Sure, it may cost a little more, but you know that money is going into ethical practices and a quality garment. Plus, you know you're not getting the knocked-off, misspelled version of a design you love.
Or, find your pieces at boutiques filled with local or women-owned makers. My FEMINISTE shirt is from one of the most fun design teams, People I've Loved, and (for my Atlanta people) I snagged it at Young Blood Boutique. I had a lovely conversation with the sales associate and didn't get the stink eye from a disgruntled H&M employee who would have rather been anywhere but at her job. By visiting small businesses (virtually or IRL), you complete the cycle of 24/7 Feminism by doing what's best instead of what's easy.
One of my favorite ways to avoid the fast fashion retailers directly is by shopping secondhand. If you know me and have asked where I bought something, chances are that you've heard me say Buffalo Exchange or Goodwill.
Shopping secondhand not only saves you money, it also saves those aforementioned sweatshop workers from making their 1,000th white t-shirt. Pro-tip: you can also get an idea of how poorly made fast fashion pieces are by shopping secondhand; next time you visit a thrift store, be sure to check the brands and how torn apart the pieces are. If you see major pilling, undone stitching, etc., it will reinforce the idea of avoiding poor quality.
Selling one million girl power shirts isn't going to create gender equality if it actively hurts the women who make them. While I love that feminism is more accepted now than it has ever been, I can't excuse what these brands are doing for the sake of awareness. We have to expect better from our retailers and we have to do better as consumers.
If you're smart enough to be a feminist, you're smart enough to not buy from brands that don't support women.