FEMINIST CONSUMERISM IN A SWEATSHOP ERA

Molly Gonzales | Contributor

Most of the popular retailers you and I shop at employ sweatshops, facilities for outsourced labor that have limited regulations and slave-like work environments. We often hear this term and rarely think twice. If they were that bad, somebody would do something, right? Nike, H&M, Walmart, Zara’s, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, and more all use sweatshops, and surely labor abuse isn’t ubiquitous…right? We assume sweatshops don’t have anything to do with us. They only occur on the other side of the planet and are beyond our control. Not only do sweatshops have everything to do with you and I, but their existence is not exclusively foreign. In fact, sweatshops exist throughout the United States, from Silicon Valley to New York City.

By definition, a sweatshop just has to be “a factory or workshop where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.” They are fueled by the greed of capitalism and western consumerism wherever they appear. This raises a question for the fashion-minded Fourth Waver. Is it possible to enjoy fashion through a feminist lense, or is the idea of an ethical fashion consumer a myth? Where does the clothing industry fall on the 2018 feminist agenda, and how can I convince you that it needs to be at the top of the list?

For starters, the majority of people making our clothes in sweatshops are women. They are not paid a living wage. They are not treated like human beings. They risk assault or violence if they speak up. “We’re powerless,” a female sweatshop worker for Nike said in 2011. “Our only choice is to stay and suffer or speak out and be fired!” She, like many other women interviewed, chose to remain anonymous in fear of losing her job or facing physical punishments for speaking out. Many of the women who work in sweatshops are forced to labor 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. The salary they make, on average less than $3 a day, evaporates when trying to obtain food, water, and essentials for their children.

Why do so many women need to labor constantly for items that should last? The market depends on us constantly buying clothes. These big brands are fans of “Fast Fashion”, a sort of marketing ploy that increases the amount of seasons from four seasons a year to 50-100 micro-seasons a year. This means stores don’t just get a new line of clothes every semester; they are constantly introducing new designs in days-long time frames. “Fast Fashion” is the engine behind most civil rights atrocities committed by major retailers. The speed of production forces the women making our clothes to reach impossible quotas in horrific conditions.

If there is an ethical way to mass produce clothes, major brands like H&M, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters do not subscribe to them. Is there any way someone was paid a living wage for making a shirt that you paid $4 for? Sweatshops allow big companies to avoid regulations and pay their workers as little as possible for as many hours of work as they desire. This is popular with consumers – who doesn’t love scoring an entire outfit for under $20 at H&M?  Since the big brands don’t actually own the sweatshops, there is very limited accountability. The physical factories are there for not directly tied to the brands, they just employ them. As a result, the fashion industry is in free fall – and women’s lives are at stake.  Yet, we buy t-shirts from these same companies because they’ve mastered the art of girl power marketing.

This means the “Feminist” t-shirt you got from Forever 21 supports a system of vigorous inequality. Everytime you wear your sweatshirt that reads “The Future is Female” from Urban Outfitters, you are advocating for oppression – whether or not you realize it! You are handing your money over to a company that cares more about profits than the health and safety of the women who are physically responsible for their success. If you are into displaying your political affiliations on your back…it’s time to make sure you don’t go against everything you believe in.

How do we make sure our feminist identities line up with our shopping habits? It’s possible!  The smartphone app Good On You reviews over a thousand clothing brands and stores to help you shop ethically. It scores the brands on their labor choices, environmental impact, and animal testing to come up with a 5-star ranking. The app helps consumers shop responsibly and also includes written pieces and news articles regarding sweatshops and fast fashion. I use it often; it not only recommends affordable and ethical brands but also warns you about stores to avoid. Local thrift shops are also a great resource for an ethical feminist consumer. By taking your business there, you can double the goodness by avoiding exploitation while supporting your neighborhood! It is our job, as global citizens and feminists, to stop pursuing brands that capitalize off the abuse of women. We don’t need the newest jacket or brand name jeans. We need ethical lifestyles and a global sisterhood.