Fashion It Forward
Empowering Women With Your Dollar
By Sophia Wu
The clothing industry connects nearly every person on this planet in a complex web of influence and interactions. The sustainable fashion movement has made this web a little more responsible, transparent and understandable, but still, there is a lot of progress to be made. One important, but often overlooked matter is female empowerment and support within the garment industry.
In the context of the fashion industry, the term “sustainability” is often associated with actions like providing information about factories: using deadstock or organic fabrics, or implementing production processes that reduce waste. While the aforementioned are important aspects of fashion sustainability, at its core, sustainability is more holistic. It’s not just about the quality of the garment, it’s about the quality of everything and everyone in the system of production that created the garment. As women represent an average 68% of the garment workforce, according to a 2017 report by Business for Social Responsibility. The term, “sustainability,” should also encompass the sustainability of these women’s livelihoods with fair and dignified work.
In 2015, the United Nations set its 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be accomplished by the year 2030. The fashion industry has the power to add to the progress of many of the goals. Among them, Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 5: Gender Equality, and Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, are closely tied to the empowerment of women. When women are provided with decent and well-paying work, they’re able to sustain better lives for themselves and their families. Furthermore, companies actually have much to gain from investing in their workers. Harvard Business Review conducted a study in five Bangalore factories run by Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd., India’s biggest garment export firm, to prove this point. They found that after companies implemented Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) training, a life skills course for female garment workers designed by Gap, Inc., they experienced a net rate of return of nearly 250%.
More specifically, “total costs peaked at $90,285 after 11 months, while the gains continued to grow (up to $321,145 at 20 months from the start of training). Additionally, there was a significant spillover effect, with untrained workers on the same production lines as trainees being 6.5 percentage points more productive than control workers and working 7.8 days more over the duration of the program.”
Investing in workers translates to an investment in the long term growth of the company. Investing in workers means investing in their well-being.
When a woman walks into a Zara or other fast-fashion retailer and decides that she needs a fourth white t-shirt, because the sleeves are just a bit shorter than those on the t-shirts she has at home, she is indirectly supporting a system that underpays and mistreats garment workers—most of them, women.
Paradoxically, women have the greatest purchasing power in fashion, but at the same time are also the most repressed by the industry. This is why it is so important to support brands that empower women. Buy from brands that are led by women, brands that extend the reach of their support to the female garment workers and farmers all the way down the supply chain, and brands that donate proceeds to nonprofits and charities that uplift women, sustainability and female empowerment has the opportunity to exist in range of company sizes/ resources, methods of impact, and community supported.
The sustainable fashion movement has brought us all a little closer to each other—from designer to farmer, factory owner to weaver, garment worker to consumer, the stories that previously were unknown are now being uncovered. It’s important to slow down and listen. Before you buy your fourth white t-shirt at Zara, learn the stories of the garment workers and brand owners and understand why they commit to the causes or live the lives they do. Then, listen to your own values and make a decision that supports those values. If you choose to support a brand that empowers the women who work for it, the positive effects of your decision can be felt across the world.