On March 8th, we celebrated International Women's Day — a day to acknowledge the accomplishments of women and encourage equality, inclusion, and diversity in the workplace and on a global scale.
The UN officially recognized this international movement in 1977. Still, it began in the U.S. in 1902 as National Women's Day, honoring garment workers protesting against unsafe working conditions. It has since evolved into a broader fight for women's rights.
Although there has been significant progress towards equality for garment workers, the fast-fashion system continues to perpetuate inequality, especially in the global south across various industries. The truth is; fast-fashion is a feminist issue, and here's why;
A significant consequence of the current fashion system is that millions of garment workers need but do not earn a living wage, a topic discussed in our last article. Despite women making up the majority (more than 80%) of the labour force in the garment sector, gender inequality remains a visible issue.
While there are efforts by organizations to implement a universal living wage, most focus on closing the income gap, not the gender wage gap, which directly impacts communities and development opportunities for women.
LINKING GENDER & WAGE
The Gender Pay Gap is a measure to understand how, in a specific sector or company, salaries are balanced between men and women. In short, it is the average difference between the remuneration for men and women.
In Asia, the gender pay gap within the garment sector is 41% in Pakistan, 33% in Sri Lanka, and 22% in Bangladesh. This can be attributed to the types of jobs women are found within, like weaving and sewing, that are low paying and, except for Sri Lanka and Vietnam, fall under informal employment (temporary or home-based work) compared to management roles which limit their career growth potential and opportunities.
To put things into perspective, the gender pay gap in the EU stands at 12.7 % in 2021, with minimal change over the last decade. It means that women earn 13.0 % on average less per hour than men. The OECD's website provides data for a range of countries.
How does this relate to living wages and the difference between a living wage and what garment workers earn?
The Industry We Want has carried out an analysis of the issue of living wages in Fashion and found that the average percentage gap between minimum wages and the average living wage (which is different from the gender gap), estimated in 28 key garment-producing countries, is 48,5% (increased by 3,5% compared to 2022). This means that workers receive less than half of the money they need to reach a decent standard of living.
Within this value pay gap between a living wage and what is earned, there is an even more challenging situation for women, who earn less than men. According to BSR, low-income working women in the supply chain for Fashion often face significant and specific challenges, such as a low status in the workplace, low skill levels, irregular and excessive hours, harassment, violence, and discrimination. You can read more about these highly dark topics in one of our recent articles, which looks at the Dark Side of Fashion.
Why are things the way they are in fashion?
Our latest article examines why wages are constantly being reduced and how the power imbalance between brands and manufacturers leaves brands with the final say on how much they want to pay for garments.
Fast Fashion keeps women workers impoverished by continually chasing the lowest price and wage. Fast fashion brands are motivated by how much profit they can make without caring how much this costs the people who make their products.
THE COMPLEXITY OF WOMEN'S DAY
While we love to see brands doing great work to promote and support women's rights on International Women’s Day, some of the marketing promotions often miss the mark, big time!
Fashion brands often use this day as an excuse to sell more, through dedicated sales, aggressive marketing, and pink-washing, by pretending that they care about women.
Sales, however, mean cheaper clothes and lower wages paid to garment workers, who are mostly women. Do you see the controversy?
Also, selling more drives higher environmental emissions, which significantly affect women more than men. According to the UN, women and girls experience the most significant impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety. So instead of Women's day sales, we need Women's Day initiatives.
Issues are heightened when we look at the top positions in the fashion industry that make the most profits and set the rules. According to a study by AI-driven retail merchandising firm Nextail, male appointments made up 76.9% of all CEO newcomers across the fashion industry in 2021 (therefore 23.1% female), with a slight increase in 2022: female executives accounted for 31.4% of new appointments.
When women are paid less, it's not only their livelihood affected but that of their entire community and network. The International Labour Organization estimates that upwards of 300 million people who work from home, primarily engaged in hand work, are predominantly women. The study found that women (unlike men) invest more than 90% of their earnings in their families. Women invest in their communities and uplift their communities.
Women deserve their rights to be properly understood. Maternal Rights include maternity leave (time off when an employee is pregnant), menstruation leave, and breastfeeding breaks. In an environment where everything is designed around speed and minimizing costs, female garment workers are often fired if pregnant or, even worse, forced to take contraception against their will. Human rights violations are directly linked to the model of Fast Fashion, which this article from Reuters exemplifies in this quote from an activist;
“Growing pressure from big brands on suppliers to deliver clothes ever-quicker and cheaper is fuelling exploitation from a lack of bathroom breaks to verbal abuse.”
To hear directly from the perspective of women in the garment sector see this article, which highlights the experiences of women working in Asia and the Pacific region.
SOLUTIONS & SUPPORT FOR WOMEN
Women's Day is about highlighting the fantastic work being done to support women, and there are great organizations putting in the work for the betterment of women in the global garment supply chain;
Oxfam's What She Makes campaign demands big clothing brands pay the women who make our clothes a living wage. With people's voices demanding action and Oxfam's direct engagement with brands, they urge clothing companies to take the crucial next step to create a fairer fashion industry. Their company tracker lets consumers see which brands respect workers' rights (and, therefore, primarily women's rights), in their supply chain. Public disclosure of this information is a great start, as brands are pushed to act better, or they will lose customers.
HER project believes employment and empowerment go hand in hand for female garment workers. This organization works alongside global brands, suppliers, and partners to create and implement workplace-based interventions on health, inclusion, and gender equality that help women in the garment sector to take greater agency over their lives and unlock their potential to advance themselves and their careers.
For centuries, craftspeople have sustained local communities through traditional garment making knowledge. In fact, hand workers contribute $718 billion in value to the global GDP each year. Still, their social and economic protection is not highly valued. In our craft and care culture article we touch on how this knowledge has become fragmented across generations and become non-scalable as a niche industry.
NEST is an organization working to change this, believing that craft can advance gender equity and economic opportunities for women. Through no-cost memberships, a global network of 2,014 artisan communities receives business training and access to educational materials to increase their revenue. Across their network, 77% of the artisans employed are women, driving the expansion of female entrepreneurship toward profitable opportunities.
In honor of International Women's Day, William Sonoma Inc announced its commitment to source $50 million in Ethically Handcrafted products from Nest's artisan partners by 2025, an ongoing partnership since 2014. More brands should understand the power of advancing gender and economic equity worldwide and put their women's day marketing money towards meaningful change.
KOTN is a Toronto-based clothing company with a global presence and equitable supply chains in Egypt. They work with suppliers to guarantee a living wage calculated based on local living costs and wellbeing. Last Black Friday, they held a sale to raise proceeds towards building more schools in rural Egypt, where 88% enrolled are girls – to improve the gender gap in literacy rates.
This International Women’s Day, Fashion Revolution reminded us that 90% of the supporters of Good Clothes, Fair Pay, a campaign demanding living wage legislation across the garment, textile, and footwear sector, are women. Sign the petition here.
If we are to make fashion an equitable industry we need everyone on board to ensure brands and retailers conduct due diligence on living wages and gender pay gaps across their supply chains. When we all support women, we promote human rights and create prosperous global supply chains.
"The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights." - Gloria Steinem.
Until next time, stay diligent friends, and always, support women x.