The Tension Between Fast Fashion and Feminism



‘Fast fashion’, a term used to define mass produced, cheap clothing that replicates high-fashion trends at a low cost, has been a growing trend over the past twenty years. Despite being highly affordable, fast fashion is wasteful and often unethical. Darrel Moore writes, in an article for Circular, that fast fashion produces over 92 million tonnes of waste a year, highlighting the immense environmental impact the fashion industry has.


Social media plays a key role in how fashion is consumed and how trends are noticed. Trends come in and out at an alarming rate, and items of clothing that one month were the hottest trend, the next month are considered ‘cheugy’ - a word coined in 2013 which is thrown around a lot on TikTok, meaning something that is out of date.


While fast fashion is highly convenient and allows consumers to keep up to date with the latest style, it is a feminist issue that continues to be ignored by many large brands.


Sweatshops and feminism


80% of the world's garment makers are women, aged between 18-35, many of whom have to work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions everyday, in environments where they are faced with discrimination, and even violence, because of their gender. The women are trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation by those employing them.


Many fast fashion brands such as Primark, TopShop and H&M use sweatshops for cheap labour, allowing them to sell their products at lower, more appealing prices to entice consumers. In an article written by The Sun, it was uncovered that workers for Beyonce’s clothing line, Ivy Park, which was meant to ‘empower women’ through sportswear, reportedly earned just 44p an hour, highlighting the huge hypocrisy that many of these brands attempt to hide.


In Bangladesh in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. In the absence of health and safety regulations and proper enforcement, over 1130 people were killed, with 80% of those were women and children. The factory manufactured garments from brands such as Primark, Matalan and Mango. Despite warnings of cracks in the building, Sohel Rana who owned the establishment, ‘threatened to withhold pay’ from anyone who refused to return to work. This opened the world’s eyes to the appalling conditions many workers are forced to be in, but was soon removed from consciousness as people continued to shop at these brands.


This is a huge feminist issue as the women who work in these conditions are not treated as human beings, rather slaves who’s only role is to manufacture goods. Many of these women are employed because they are unmarried or don’t have a family of their own, and in some cases, are made to sign a contract to say they will not get married or have children during their employment, taking away their right to a life outside of these sweatshops. These factories exploit the most vulnerable women and isolate them even further from the outside world, and making them even more vulnerable due to the dangerous conditions they work in.


Brands using feminist slogans


Throughout history, the relationship between fashion and feminism has been highly complex. Fashion has vastly evolved over the past 100 years and has become a tool of empowerment and expression for women instead of the once oppressive force used to control them. Many women use fashion to explore identity and sexuality, and even feminism, whether it be through suits, dresses, or clothing with feminist slogans.


Individuals use fashion to empire themselves and to bring awareness to social issues, as noted by Emily Potts in an article for Palatinate, ‘Many fashion brands use political and feminist movements for commercial use, rather than acknowledging how their own companies have disproportionate negative effects on women of colour.’ There is a huge hypocrisy in these brands promoting female empowerment, when they play an active part in female dis-empowerment across the globe. It may seem as though a brand believes in the message they are portraying about empowering all women, but these brands also play a huge role in creating inequality and exploiting millions of women, especially in the Global South.


Fast fashion in conversation


In regards to the conversation of fast fashion, it is important to discuss that fast fashion offers low cost alternative clothing for those who may otherwise struggle to afford to buy from sustainable brands, which are often pricier. It makes clothing more accessible for people on low incomes, and although the means in which these clothes are made is unethical, it is important to not demonize people who are unable to afford to shop elsewhere.


Instead, the conversation needs to turn to the brands and manufacturers who need to be looking at improving working conditions, wages, and sustainability, to enable women's basic needs being met and so that we can take a step closer to empowering all women.