Fashion and feminism

Why slow fashion is a feminist issue.

Josie Hough


Fashion and feminism go hand in hand. The fashion industry – and more specifically fast fashion – relies overwhelmingly on women as consumers and as workers. When we learn that those women workers are at high risk of having their human rights violated, and certainly do not enjoy the social, economic and political equality that we, as feminists, believe they are entitled to, it becomes very challenging to endorse the industry which puts them in this position. But what can we do to put our feminism into practice when it comes to fashion? 

Don’t worry: this article isn’t here to guilt you into swearing off big brands and living in the same outfit for the rest of your life. We love fashion, and don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be feminist too – with a bit of work. So read on if you’re interested in discovering the impact of what you’re buying and wearing, and how buying slow fashion instead of fast fashion is one way to ensure your choices are feminist. 

Why is fast fashion a feminist issue? 

First of all, why is fast fashion such an issue? Not only are the majority of the fashion industry’s targeted consumers women, but the overwhelming majority – 80% – of workers fuelling the industry are women too. Fashion is one of the world’s most labour-intensive industries. At least 60 million people are directly employed in the industry’s supply chain (that is to say, every step it takes to produce and sell a product, from picking cotton to make a t-shirt all the way to disposing of the garment), and many millions more are indirectly dependent on the sector. So, an enormous number of people, particularly women, are impacted by the fashion industry. 

This wouldn’t be such an issue if these workers were treated fairly. However, throughout the supply chain, these people work for low pay in unsafe conditions that violate their fundamental human rights. 

Low pay isn’t just a problem for garment workers in developing countries, it also affects retail workers in the developed countries where the products are sold too. Even if workers are paid the minimum wage for the area in which they live – whether it’s Bangladesh or the UK – we know this salary is often not enough to live off, hence why a demand to pay living wages exists. 

As well as not earning a decent wage (that is, enough to live off), many workers in the fashion industry, especially in the global south, are also subject to unsafe working conditions. An example that many will remember is the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, in which at least 1,132 people were killed and more than 2,500 injured.  

Furthermore, as in many industries around the world, women make up the majority of low-paid work with men in more supervisory roles. In this context, the gender imbalance puts women workers in the fashion industry at an extremely high risk of sexual intimidation, harassment and violence. In fact, according to Care International (2019), one in every two women working in garment factories in Southeast Asia have been sexually harassed in their workplace. 

As if all this wasn’t horrifying enough, shockingly, a 2016 survey found that 77% of UK retailers believed there was a likelihood of forced, bonded or child labour occurring at some stage in their supply chains. 

And this isn’t just the case in poorly-reputed budget fashion stores; mid-range and high-end brands also rely on underpaid and rights-deprived workers to make their products. These days, the scale and speed of operation in the fashion industry necessitates a massive, cheap workforce to meet consumer demand as quickly as possible and to make as much profit as possible for the few people in charge of the end companies. 

There is clearly a lot that needs to change in the fashion industry in order to achieve gender equality and ensure that every worker in the supply chain can enjoy their human rights. But it’s not just people who are affected, it’s the environment too. 

The fashion industry is responsible for around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for approximately 4% of annual global freshwater use. The environmental impact of fashion extends to massive deforestation and pollution too. Toxic chemical pollution of the earth’s water, air pollution from generating electricity that the industry uses for manufacturing and plastic pollution. The latter comes from the release of microfibres from our clothes each time we wash them, as well as from the disposal of our garments once we no longer want them. 

The environmental impact of the fashion industry makes it a massive contributor to climate change, which, studies have shown, disproportionately affects women. Climate change also leads to displacement, instability and increased poverty, which makes women and girls even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. 

If as feminists, we believe in gender equality and that all women should have access to their fundamental human rights, it goes without saying that we should not support an industry which does not respect human beings and the environment in which we live.  

When we see the facts and figures demonstrating gender inequality it can be overwhelming to know what to do with this knowledge. We want to act, to do our bit to alleviate the situation: whether it’s protesting, writing letters to companies and policymakers, boycotting or simply buying consciously, our actions matter and they contribute to making the world a fairer place. We need governmental policy change, we need brands to change and accept responsibility, but as consumers we can also change. 

Where we spend our money is important, especially as a collective society, as it shows brands what we want and in theory, makes them change. Look at the huge amount of vegetarian and vegan products available to buy from local supermarkets nowadays. That is the case thanks to increasing numbers of people buying them – supply and demand. We can use our buying power as individuals – and, the more people act on their feminism, as a collective – to make brands change. Avoiding fast fashion and its inherent problems, demanding change from the fashion industry and spending our money at companies we know respect human and environmental rights. Which brings us to slow fashion.  

What is slow fashion? 

By definition, slow fashion is the opposite to fast fashion. Instead of using industrial practices and supply chains to mass-produce items quickly, slow fashion advocates for local artisans making products with eco-friendly materials, with the goal of preserving crafts (and particularly local, traditional methods of handcrafting) and the environment.  

Slow fashion brands, like Honest Love Our Planet, empower their creators by paying fair wages, giving them safe working conditions and reducing the environmental impact of their products and the manufacturing process. 

For example, Honest LOP make beautiful, handmade ornaments and decorations according to the traditional handcrafting methods of the Kashmir region currently occupied by India. Not only do the creators enjoy a fair wage and safe working conditions, but the items they make are also 100% biodegradable. Reducing the environmental impact of products, whether ornaments or a t-shirt, is an important win for feminism too, because, as we explored earlier in this blog, environmental issues impact women more than men on average.  

Plus you get a beautiful, handmade, authentic product that perpetuates the traditional methods of handcrafting in the region. The added benefit of enjoying these cultural artefacts first hand rather than paying for a fast fashion brand to appropriate them instead is a definite win for feminism and equality. 

Slow fashion is a win for feminism 

So there you have it. From its treatment of women to its environmental impact, there are so many worrying aspects of fast fashion that make it really challenging to support the industry. But there are plenty of things we can do to make our fashion choices feminist. And one excellent way to do so is to support slow fashion brands which respect human rights and the environment throughout their production processes.

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