A simple search of the meaning on feminism leads us to ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’. Why are we advocating the rights of one group on grounds of equality? Simply because this equality does not exist, which means that there is a hierarchy in the power system. Thus, inherently, feminism is a movement that questions authority and oppression because of these unequal power systems and structures.
What started off as a movement for the emancipation of women based on the idea that the existing power structures oppress one group more than others, also finds application in various allied contexts. Environmental degradation is a feminist issue because it impacts one group worse than the other. Poverty is a feminist issue because it is caused by and leads to unequal power structures and therefore oppression. Ethical fashion is a feminist issue.
The feminist issue here is the usage of labour from developing or under-developed countries, not paying them adequate compensation for their work, and not ensuring decent working conditions for them.
What do you think of when you hear about sustainability in fashion? During the recent FII Instagram account takeover by Ashraya Maria, an FII intern, dominant thoughts spoke of the material used to make fashion products, dominant sizes, the treatment of plus sizes by the fashion industry. Let’s dig deeper.
Also read: Why Women Workers Are Protesting Against H&M
In 2013, the Rana Plaza incident in Dhaka, Bangladesh shook the world. It led to the emergence of initiatives like the Fashion Revolution (and their extremely popular initiative ‘Who Made My Clothes?’), discourses on harms of fast-fashion, and conversations around sustainability in fashion. This incident happened because of unfair labour practices – workers were paid unfair wages, their working conditions were appalling, and their efforts would go on to make millions of dollars of profit for companies that would employ these factories for the production of their fashion products.
More than 80% of garment workers are women. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is about $67 per month, which is approximately Rs. 4800 (as on 22.01.2019) – not even enough to buy a decent wardrobe from the fast fashion brands that employ these women. The feminist issue here, thus, is using labour from developing or under-developed countries, not paying them adequate compensation for their work in proportion to the profits earned by these companies, and not ensuring decent working conditions for them – simply because they have no other place to work in.
Sustainable fashion is about ensuring that there is labour sustainability across the value chain – every stakeholder is paid a living wage that supports their livelihood and their families. Not doing so perpetuates lack of education, medical assistance, and nutrition, that further perpetuate poverty – another feminist concern.
Fast fashion companies have also gained notoriety for another appaling reason – their business model. A Zara seeks to produce a new range of ready-to-wear collection every 2 weeks, all at hard to believe prices – encouraging over-consumption, dumping of unsold stock, intellectual property infringement of other designers, and many more. This business model can be supported only if the cost of materials is cheaper, the quality encourages frequent deterioration to support frequent shopping trips, and costs are heavily cut down (and the easiest is to pay the sweatshop workers poorly).
Sustainable fashion is about ensuring that the problem of overconsumption in fashion is resolved.
This puts a strain on the environment – we have limited resources and overconsumption forces an inadequate utilisation of these. The True Cost, an award-winning documentary, talks of the actual cost we spend when purchasing fast-fashion – account for the opportunity cost of the money you’ve spent on an over-flowing wardrobe where you have nothing to wear (how?), the cost of environmental damage, who this environmental degradation impacts first and the most, the cost of unfair living wages to the people who’re producing your coveted pieces of fashion.
Sustainable fashion is about ensuring that the problem of overconsumption in fashion is resolved. Overconsumption of fabrics like cotton, silk, and many more is not sustainable. Switching to natural fabrics and not switching off the number of clothes we buy is not sustainable.
What are the feminist choices that you can make to ensure you remain fashionable and sustainable? Here’s a list of some things I follow personally, and believe is a good place to start.
1. Shop Less, Shop Thoughtfully
Over the last few years, I’ve switched to a capsule wardrobe which enables me to have a selective wardrobe of fashionable and balanced pieces that last me through years. You don’t have to start shopping only ‘sustainable fabrics’. You can also shop minimally from fast fashion if it suits your budget better and build a wardrobe that lasts for longer. Remember, the key here is to not overconsume.
2. Shop Differently
Consider home-grown brands and labels, but don’t forget the magic of your local tailor either. A lucknawi chikan can be purchased from Anjul Bhandari, but also your local cloth market.
Utilise second-hand shops if reusing such products works for you. Swap and check out This for That, India’s first fashion swapping application. Also, consider donating used clothes to organisations that work in the area of repurposing and upcycling clothes.
4. Engage In Conversation Around Sustainable Fashion
Sustainability Style Speak is a good place to start. They have a Facebook group and organise SUSS-outs every 2 months on specific themes around sustainable fashion. (Disclaimer: I’m a member of the group.)
To learn more about sustainable fashion, refer the following.
1 The True Cost – movie, available on Netflix
2. A Feminist Perspective of Fast Fashion Industry – TedX
3. Why Ethical Fashion is a Feminist Issue – Article on Fashionista.com, April 26, 2017
4. Sustainability Style Speak
Aruna is a lawyer for creatives. She’s passionate about sustainability, literature, and fashion. She’s also an art enthusiast and tweets at @_arunachawla.