Fair trade as feminist activism

This month has been a big-deal news month in two major areas of my life: fashion and feminism.

In case you didn’t see it, the Daily Mail ran a story on November 2 that claimed unsavory origins for the popular “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts that have been spotted on numerous British celebrities and politicians. According to the Mail, the T-shirts, sold by the British feminist organization the Fawcett Society, are made in a sweatshop in Mauritius. The Fawcett Society, who sources the T-shirts through the stupidly-named UK clothing retailer Whistles (come on, you can’t tell me that’s not a stupid name), initially responded to the story by claiming that Whistles executives had promised that the shirts would, in fact, be made in the UK, and announced that they planned to investigate the allegations.

this is what a feminist looks like t-shirt

But is it also what the work of a sweatshop laborer looks like?

On November 4, however, the Fawcett Society posted an update to the story on their website, which was later picked up by other media outlets. “We are pleased to confirm that we have today seen expansive and current evidence from Whistles that the CMT factory in Mauritius they used to produce our ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt conforms to ethical standards,” declared Eva Neitzert, deputy CEO of the Fawcett Society. The statement then goes on to outline the ways in which the factory conforms to said standards, and ends with a total refutation of the story by the Daily Mail. (The Mail, however, is sticking to its guns on this.)

So all well and good, right? Well, maybe not exactly.

Whether or not the Daily Mail’s assertions are true, and given the general muckraking vibe of the paper I’m inclined to believe they are not, the story brings up a major criticism of mainstream feminism: that it’s for Western women only. There are ways in which this argument can be pointless and minimizing (how dare you complain about being sexually harrassed when at least nobody’s making you wear a burka!), and ways in which it can be important (I have the right to wear what I want without being harrassed, so I’m going to wear this Forever 21 dress that was made by a woman who couldn’t complain about her boss sexually harrassing her without losing her job).

The idea of a feminist-activitist T-shirt being made by virtual slave labor (much of that undoubtedly female) was obviously too ironic for the Daily Mail to pass up, whatever its origins and veracity, and it’s something that needs to be considered in broader scope: why do so many men and women who identify as out-and-proud feminists not recognize their clothing choices as an opportunity to support women’s rights around the world?

Who run the world? Girls!

Who made this dress? Well, possibly a girl who was not fairly paid for her work.

I feel like I’m getting a little shamey, so let me step back. I understand that for many women, fashion is not something they can afford to spend a lot of money on. But many other women do have a choice; they just don’t realize it, or it doesn’t occur to them. I view my commitment to conscious clothing and cosmetics as, in large part, a feminist choice; many of the companies I support are run by women, or support women’s initiatives in non-Western countries (see: Raven + Lily, The Root Collective, Serrv). I’m comfortable spending a little more money (and I realize that there’s privilege here) if it means doing something to help another woman support a family, receive an education, or run a business.

Mainstream fashion, however, has hidden that option from a large number of women who might otherwise make use of it. Fair-trade fashion stores are tough to find in malls, on high streets, on Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. They’re superseded by major corporations, which have little incentive to care about the women and girls (and men and boys) who actually make the clothes they sell. Even the mainstream option(s?) that are sweatshop-free often have poor ethical track records in innumerable other areas, with allegations of sexual misconduct and racism that stretch from individual stores to top-level management.

In this case, it was reassuring to see the Fawcett Society take immediate accountability and demand evidence from their supplier that the clothes they were selling were not, in fact, harming the cause they were advancing. It certainly makes a welcome change from stores like Urban Outfitters, selling the Riot Grrrl collection, or Forever 21, proffering the Feminist Ryan Gosling blog-turned-book, next to shelves and racks filled with clothes made in sweatshops by women and girls in non-Western countries, because who cares about them, right? (/sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell.)

There are other ways to declare yourself a feminist, besides wearing it on a T-shirt that may or may not have been made in a sweatshop. You could identify yourself as such online and in person. You could vote for politicians who advocate for women (whether they are straight women, bi women, gay women, cis women, trans women, white women, or women of color). You could give money or time to an organization that works for women’s rights. You could spend $168 on a black and white dress knowing that a portion of that money will go to fund Afghan refugees in Pakistan, rather than spending $139 on a black and white dress knowing that all of that money will go to a system that supports the suppression of women and girls in non-Western countries. There is a choice, even if it might not seem like it.

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