You can blame Barbie, Mall Madness, the sexualizing and gendering of kids and their toys, but there’s no denying that women love to shop. Got a date? Buy a new dress. Feeling sad? There’s a sale at the mall. Your boyfriend broke up with you? These new shoes will show him! Women are socialized from a very young age to embrace the “born to shop” and “shop ’til you drop” mantras.
My sister’s birthday is coming up soon and caught in the pandemonium of getting a last-minute gift for her, I wandered over to Forever21.com, where I found painfully on-trend dresses and a handful of accessories for around $100. $100! You’ve got to be kidding me. Over and over, I found myself thinking “WHY IS THIS DRESS SO CHEAP?”
Naomi Wolf’s latest dispatch answers that very question:
But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world. How do Primark and its competitors in the West’s shopping malls and High Streets keep that cute frock so cheap? By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how.
We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.
Most of the two million people working in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women, and they are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning $25 a month. But they are demanding that their monthly wage be almost tripled, to $70. Their leaders make the point that, at current pay levels, workers cannot feed themselves or their families.
Fast Fashion — much like Fast Food — is cheap, addictive, and built on an unsustainable, low-wage system. These throwaway clothes are purposefully designed to be worn a few times and discarded, which contributes the growing problem of textile waste. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, the average American household throws away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year so it’s not hard to imagine how the constant production of new clothing poses a number of environmental challenges, especially in developing countries. Don’t even get me started about H&M trashing its unsold merchandise rather than donating it to charity.
With the advent of cheap-chic stores providing both big-name designer collaborations (H&M and Target) and disposable knock-offs (Forever 21), this problem is worsening at alarming rates. Shopping for clothes has changed radically since H&M introduced the concept of high-end designer collaboration to fashion retailing in 2004 with their Karl Lagerfeld capsule collection. (I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was devastated when this collection sold out in a matter of hours and I didn’t stand a chance of owning any of it.) Consumers today are much more savvy and experimental, and far less patient. So impatient, in fact, that in 2005 Zara bragged that it “can design and distribute a garment to market in just fifteen days.” Fifteen days. I bet you it’s even faster now.
For a long time, I justified shopping at American Apparel because of their relatively good labor policies — so thanks for ruining that for me, Dov Charney. I appreciate Wolf’s candor in admitting that despite her knowledge of the horrible work/life conditions endured by the women creating these clothes, she also shops at H&M and Zara — something I am equally guilty of. It is difficult to deny the ease of Fast Fashion even as I’ve been challenged to think even more deeply and more morally about my shopping habits.
Wolf also brings up the fact that it’s largely women producing these clothes and largely women buying them. I’ve lived in developing countries enough to know that jobs in certain “sweatshops” can empower rural women and their families. But unfortunately most garment jobs do not create enough opportunity and prosperity for workers to pull themselves out of poverty. What does it mean for feminism when women are primarily responsible for creating appalling environments for other women? Fast Fashion is a perfect case study that the action—not the gender of the person committing it — is what determines whether it is feminist or not. Just because something is done primarily by women doesn’t automatically make it “more feminist.” Women have historically been at the forefront of successful consumer boycotts and there is no reason we cannot commit to pushing for larger political change — a Slow Fashion movement, if you will — to improve the conditions endured by these workers. We are, after all, the target consumers in these retail venues.
Truly committing to Slow Fashion would require us to learn more about the clothes we buy and who produced them, and using that knowledge to make socially and environmentally responsible choices. This alone won’t be enough, because we all know big systemic, change takes time. But it’s a start. One way I’ve curbed my Fast Fashion addiction is by thrifting. Yes, the clothes are secondhand and they were probably made in a sweatshop before they became second hand but it’s better than nothing.