Comic Relief has been making headlines regularly this year, and not for the right reasons. Most recently they received widespread attention for their long-running perpetuation of the white saviour complex in order to raise money, which is all kinds of problematic. But, before that, there was the Spice Girls situation.
While upsetting to the general public, for many of us this wasn’t really new information. As part of their ‘gender justice’ campaign, Comic Relief released Spice Girls t-shirts for £19.40, with £11.60 of each sale going to the charity. Unfortunately, a Guardian investigation discovered that those t-shirts were made in a factory in Bangladesh where women regularly work 16 hour days, are given impossible targets of sewing up to 2,000 garments a day, earn the equivalent of 35p an hour, are verbally abused and harassed, and suffer with serious health problems.
A campaigner in Bangladesh, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government, said: “The women who are producing these clothes are getting poverty wages. They don’t have a dignified job. What kind of gender justice is that?”
This is clearly hypocritical when it comes to ideas of promoting feminism and a more equal society, however it’s not just limited to Comic Relief. Most retailers on the high street utilise some very unfeminist methods, meaning that it’s all too easy for feminist clothing, which is receiving a lot of attention at the moment, to be made thanks to the exploitation of a marginalised, predominantly female, workforce across the world.
We see it both globally and in the west, here are a few recent examples:
- Most retailers on the high street don’t actually know who makes their clothes, making exploitation, poor wages, and slavery very prominent within mainly female workforces. Most of these brands also sell feminist branded clothing.
- In the USA Forever 21 (who sell feminist t-shirts) was found to be paying women 12 cents for every vest sewed (the vests were sold for $13.80) in Los Angeles factories that were described as ‘sweatshop like’. The company also refused to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building safety, and refused to commit to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan, which is strongly linked to child labour.
- Zara has frequently come under fire for ripping off the work of female artists for their own designs, as has Forever 21.
- the CEOs of Forever 21, Topshop (and Arcadia group as a whole, who own multiple UK high street brands), H&M, Zara, Urban Outfitters, GAP, ASOS, Primark, Missguided, Boohoo, and Pretty Little Thing are all men. In many of these cases, a pay gap still exists because men hold a majority of senior roles in these companies.
- The CEO of Topshop and the chairman of the Arcadia group has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment and racial abuse of staff.
- Urban Outfitters consistently culturally appropriates their designs (and the fact that it has been deemed legal in the past doesn’t make it ok, it just proves how skewed our legal systems can be).
- In the run-up to the Women’s March of 2017, ethical fashion activist Amy DuFault noticed that her local chapter of the march were selling marchandise manufactured by Gildan, a company with a history of using sweatshop labour in Central America.
Additionally, the relationship between feminism and capitalism is somewhat complex. T-shirts with the phrase ‘the future is female’ are a strong example of this, as this design actually stems from the lesbian separatist movement. The image of the t-shirt was first captured by photographer Liza Cowan, of her then-partner Alix Dobkin wearing the shirt as part of a series on lesbian fashion, and it hailed from Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York. The shirts were revived in 2015, sold by a Brooklyn shop that donated a quarter of profits to Planned Parenthood. Soon after their popularity swelled, leading to a variety of knock offs going on sale and fashion brands following suit.
But, as author Andi Zeisler discusses in her writing, ‘marketplace feminism’ can all too easily depoliticise the hard work of feminist activism, replacing it with feel-good slogans instead. Beyonce’s Ivy Park line for Topshop could be seen as a good example of this: whilst Beyonce identifies as a feminist and people may feel they’re supporting feminism by buying from her line and displaying their wares, predominantly female workers were also paid 54 cents per hour to manufacture her clothing. Capitalism and patriarchy often lead to exploitation and, while it’s an incredibly tricky thing to try and dismantle an entire system that we’re stuck within (and Beyonce is not the one to be blamed in all this), it does require us to think critically and about the wider context we might be playing into. In this example: you might give some financial support to Beyonce the feminist, but you also fund continued exploitation of workers, making clothes made from potentially toxic and polluting fibres and dyes, and ultimately lining the pockets of a male CEO who has been accused of harassment and racism (although it’s worth noting, at the end of 2018 Beyonce bought out Topshop’s shares of the line and cut ties with Philip Green).
I know it’s a bit of a grim picture. But it also doesn’t have to be, and it doesn’t mean you can’t ever wear these kinds of t-shirts. Clothing, when operating at its best in our lives, is meant to be a form of creative expression and healthy identity formation, on top of the functional needs it meets, and there isn’t actually anything wrong with wearing clothing that expresses your values and beliefs (as long as those beliefs aren’t hateful or oppressive, obviously).
I think the answer, therefore, lies in balance and holistic thinking. Balance between making sure we actually show up and do the work (not just wear the t-shirt), whilst also ensuring, as best we can, that the t-shirt we wear doesn’t play into larger systems of oppression either. It’s totally ok to enjoy ourselves and the clothes we wear, but it’s not ok to use the slogans on these clothes to absolve ourselves from actually doing any work. Like all forms of activism, feminism is hard. The struggles are long and difficult. But they are also worth it.
Some ideas for things you can do, in order to ensure you’re actively seeking a fairer feminist future:
- Read up on the history of the feminist movement. It’s important to understand its beginnings but also its failures (especially when it comes to the treatment of women of colour), in order to ensure we don’t repeat them again. Vox’s timeline of the feminist waves also contains recommended further reading.
- Learn about intersectionality, and consider working through the Me and White Supremacy workbook by Layla F. Saad.
- Donate to or fundraise for intersectional feminist organisations, for example Women’s Environmental Network, RAINN, Times Up Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, Equality Now, Madre, and Orchid Project.
- Get political: support politicians who champion intersectional feminist rights (which inherently includes things like environmental policy, mental health policy, disabled policy, justice reform, educational reform, and more), and contact your local representatives about feminist policies. Upskirting, for example, just became a criminal offence last month, but the UK is still working to amend the Children Act, enabling courts to issue protection orders if they think someone is at risk of FGM. Ask yourself if there are there other policies that affect your country or your area, and think about how you could get involved in changing them.
- Contact businesses, especially those within the fashion industry, and ask them to do better. Publicly tell them on social media that they need to change, support public policy that will hold them accountable, and make them pay their taxes properly.
- Support intersectional businesses, events, and spaces (remembering that they shouldn’t be exclusionary, and should also embrace and welcome folks who are trans, non-binary, agender, intersex and more).
- Support the LGBTQ+ community, organisations like Stonewall, GLAD, Human Rights Campaign, and MindOut are good places to start.
- If you’re someone who wants to sell clothing or merchandise, ask these questions of your manufacturer to avoid going against your own principles:
– Where is the company based?
– Do they have any history with labour, environmental or human rights issues?
– Are they owned by a larger company?
– How are they approaching sustainability and does it fit with our cause?
Alternative options for that feminist tee
As a response to the hostility and turmoil surrounding Brexit, Birdsong have collaborated with creative project ‘Still European’, and XXY Magazine, a cultural platform focused on marginalised voices, to create a limited edition run of t-shirts made ethically from 100% organic combed cotton. Each t-shirt is embroidered by a community sewing school in East London, with money from sales going to sewing lessons for women from low-income backgrounds and people with disabilities.
Ethically made in Tanzania, using GOTS certified organic cotton that is also grown in Africa, before being embroidered in Kent.
Unisex, ethically produced (WRAP certified) using 100% organic cotton, and screen printed using eco-friendly water-based inks.
Handmade from organic cotton by Assisi Garments, a social enterprise in India. (currently on sale so only UK size 8 is left)
Upcycled by hand using vintage t-shirts and printed in Arizona, unisex, and run by another one woman show.
Manufactured by Earth Positive here. Nude Ethics is also a one-woman show; all pieces are made from organic cotton and screen-printed and embroidered at the studio in Cornwall with vegan waterbased inks and vegan thread.
Ethically made in Los Angeles, for each purchase $5 is donated to ACLU, Equality Now, or the Human Rights Campaign (currently not made with organic cotton, and sweatshirts are made in Vietnam, although you can view these factories online).
Unisex, made in the US, a portion of the proceeds from each sale is donated to The National Center for Transgender Equality (not currently made from organic cotton).
Made in Los Angeles, women-owned, and gender-free designs (not currently made from organic cotton).