Online impulse buying during lockdown was increasingly complemented by moments of self-reflection, says Syreel Mishra,Trinity Business School. What are the dimensions to challenge to bring fashion brands round to achieving sustainability, gender equality and employee well-being?
Fashion – A Feminist Issue? by Syreel Mishra.
“Who made my clothes? How were they made?” – these questions have been buzzing around amongst conscious consumers post-pandemic. With nowhere to go and to be, people in lockdown have engaged in impulse buying which has accelerated online shopping in emerging economies by 10 per cent, as reported by UNCTAD in its 2020 report. However, these excessive decisions have become increasingly complemented by moments of self-reflection.
A 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company, showcases how Millennials and Gen-Z are more likely to buy second-hand fashion items as they are more aware of their impact on society and the planet – such as workers’ rights in developing countries and the negative environmental consequences of fast fashion. Currently, the business landscape is at a pivotal point as it evolves to being more inclusive of community concerns. Generally, businesses are becoming aware, now more than ever, they must provide solutions that not only benefit the consumers but also benefit the planet.
According to The Fashion Revolution Foundation, women account for an average 80 percent of the factory workforce for fast fashion brands. Since the pandemic, brands have closed factories or cancelled orders without any payments which has created a domino effect. Some major factories are located in the developing world which provides the benefit to brands as they get access to cheap labor and deficient regulations on human rights and environmental law. The following question arises: What has been the role of women in the shift towards Slow Fashion?
Women dominated, yet exploited?
Fast fashion is all about cutting corners and gaining greater market share and rate of production. However, behind the boutique-like layout of their stores, the story looks different. The cheap price tags in fast fashion stores come at a cost of poor women’s rights in factories. While in Bangladesh factory workers make USD 35 per month, in Ethiopia they make USD 26 per month, where the minimum wage as announced by their government is USD 95 per month and USD 110 per month, respectively, as per research by Fair Trade Certified.
With such low living wages, women in these developing countries are not getting the opportunity to become financially independent. However, with COVID, many factories have been shut down without any job security for the predominantly female garment workers. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, due to gender discrimination being prominent in a majority of the developing world, where garment factories are located, female garment workers are more likely to experience sexual violence and abuse, at home and at work. Yet, these workers, the backbone of the fast fashion supply chain, of which approximately 80 percent are women, are not provided any security, financially or professionally.
While women account for the majority of the workforce in fast fashion, women do not find themselves in executive level positions in the fashion industry. A 2019 PwC report points out that only 12.5 per cent of Chief Executives in apparel brands and only 26 per cent of their board members are women. This has led to post-pandemic changes such as Nike’s announcement, on March 10, to commit to 45 percent of women in leadership roles by 2025. In order for these companies to continue garnering support with their predominantly female clientele, they must take proactive actions to check their unconscious bias and balance their leadership board, especially in this era of social media activism.
Positive actions for women
We know that fashion brands need to take a closer look at their supply chains and proactively start addressing the social challenges its connected to. With brands contracting and sub-contracting their suppliers, they start losing control of ethics in their global supply chain. It is imperative that fashion brands strengthen due diligence of various elements of their supply chain. The garment manufacturer Guess, Wrangler and Lee, Laj Exports, based in India, is taking social challenges faced by women seriously, as announced by the UN Foundation in 2020. Of all factory workers, around 70 percent of Laj Exports’ employees are women. And even though women have a hold on majority of the jobs in the Indian apparel sector, they are also the gender experiencing the brunt of the gender inequity prevalent in the country. In addition to poor healthcare facilities, they also experience gender-based violence, similar to their peers in other developing countries.
So, how is Laj Exports addressing these concerns, you ask? In 2018, they partnered with an NGO called Swasti Health Catalyst to create an initiative, run by women employees themselves. This program is action-oriented as a clinic has been established which provides sanitary napkins, counseling for mental-health and provides screenings for cervical cancer. This initiative has drastically increased productivity which should be the aim for brands with global supply chains, aiming to align themselves with conscious consumers, especially post-COVID.
The UN Foundation’s ‘Private Sector Action on Women’s Health and Empowerment’ Initiative, established in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, works closely with companies with global supply chains to help them empower their female workers by supporting their health and well-being whilst gaining business returns. UN Foundation highlighted that since the pandemic, Arvind Ltd, a textile provider working with GAP and Calvin Klein have joined the UN Foundation initiative. A report published by them highlights how, despite the tumultuous effects of the pandemic on the global supply chains, companies in the apparel sector such as Inditex, Ethical Apparel Africa in West Africa, Hela Clothing, MAS Holdings in Sri Lanka, Nordstorm and Columbia Sportswear, have been successful in working towards their commitments. These initiatives by the UN Foundation and the likes of Laj Exports highlight that the apparel sector is taking note of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 3 – promoting health and well-being – and SDG 5 – achieving gender equality and empowering women.
So, what about the consumers in the fashion world? We have the ‘Fashion Makes Change’ (FMC) project, launched by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors on March 4, 2021, seeking to build resilient communities within global supply chains across the fashion industry. This project already has support of high-brand fashion houses namely, Jimmy Choo, Chloé, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and Eileen Fischer, just to name a few. FMC has partnered with Shopify to aid consumers and fashion brands to make climate and socially conscious decisions. However, it is imperative that this noble activity of off-setting and donating does not present itself as a “license” to exploit and undermine women workers in the supply chain. Projects such as these should be aligned with projects similar to UN Foundation’s ‘Private Sector Action on Women’s Health and Empowerment’ Initiative.
Women – the most affected by climate change
A 2020 report by Thred Up notes that ‘thrifty behavior’ is likely to be a prominent phenomenon post-quarantine due to changes in household incomes as 4 in 5 citizens are open to buying second-hand clothes. It also highlights that recommerce is expected to double compared to fast fashion, where it is projected to be at USD 80 billion and fast fashion at only USD 43 billion by 2029. Those driving change towards recommerce are women. While in 2018, 56 million women bought second-hand products, that demand increased to 62 million in 2019. Luxury brands are noting this trend and brands such as Hermès, Tricker’s and Brunello Cucinelli are offering in-house repair services so that their items get extended life. Additionally, Farfetch has partnered with The Restory to create ‘Farfetch Fix’ which offers repair and refurbishment services for luxury items.
This move towards recommerce and slow fashion highlights the increased importance of the Paris Agreement compared to Paris Fashion Week. Especially with the UN Fashion Charter for Climate Action of 2018, where various brands have signed and expressed their commitment towards moving towards a net-zero industry, is a move in the right direction.
You might be wondering, how the fashion industry is committing to climate action pertinent to the female agenda? Research by Global Citizen shows that climate change deepens gender equality as women are the most affected. A World Economic Forum report also shows that the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water resources, responsible for 20 percent of all industrial water pollution and is responsible for around 10 percent of the planet’s carbon emissions. Furthermore, women from low-income families in rural communities of developing countries are also known to travel on foot for many miles every day for water and experience problems with sanitation and hygiene. Therefore, with the launch of the UN Fashion Charter, we can hope to see more accountability and supply chain transparency from the fashion industry.
Body positivity & inclusiveness
According to a 2020 survey by McKinsey & Company, consumers want businesses to be purpose-driven around climate change, diversity and inclusion. It is not enough for fashion brands to deliver trendy and fashionable apparel, but they also need to start thinking about their social impact. Moving forward, the corporate responsibility program of fashion brands will have to have an element of inclusivity as well. As sustainable plus-size fashion is currently tricky to find, fashion leaders need to start filling in that gap.
It is essential that fashion brands do not just aim for token acknowledgements of racial diversity and body shape, but that they genuinely and proudly align their brand to these social issues as consumers can very easily differentiate brands that are genuine to those who just do it for show. Fashion brands need to start hiring diversity and inclusion officers to ensure that they fairly and responsibly embed social impact into their business. A striking example of a brand making strides in the representative and inclusive fashion world is Savage x Fenty, a lingerie line by Rihanna, marking itself as the strongest competitor for Victoria’s Secret. Not only does the Savage x Fenty line showcase racial diversity, but it also showcases models of various body shapes, highlighting body positivity and representation in the fashion world, something that huge brands like Victoria’s Secret has failed to do over decades in the industry. If fashion houses do not evolve with the changing social awareness and rise of conscious consumers, they too will fall behind like Victoria’s Secret. A powerful example of a brand evolving with changing times is Tommy Hilfiger. With a line created in collaboration with Zendaya, whereby all clothes were showcased using black models of various body shapes, highlights how some fashion leaders are already starting to think of the power of showcasing female body diversity and racial diversity in their business.
To wrap up!
The fashion industry has a man-made problem, but with a feminist solution. Yes, sustainable fashion can be expensive due to the high cost of ethical labor and ethically sourced materials, meaning that it can only be accessed by the privileged. However, as the pandemic has prompted consumers to reevaluate their relationship with fashion, due to TikTok videos on upcycling and luxury repairs, around 65 percent of consumers, predominantly women, are willing to invest in long life, high quality items which would then go into the second-hand market, as noted by a 2020 McKinsey & Company report titled The State of Fashion 2020. The fashion industry needs to start focusing on aligning women’s rights into their strategy of managing their global supply chains. Fashion brands have an opportunity now to address the potential rise of post-pandemic ‘revenge shopping’ in US and Europe by ensuring that their supply chains operate on a female-centric strategy.
- Link up with Syreel Mishra on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: A Luxury Lesson in Ethical Marketing
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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
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