At 17 I was hired as a sales assistant at Seattle’s flagship Nordstrom department store. In the idle moments on the shop floor I would often daydream, wondering whose hands had touched this sweater last, who was it that carefully stitched this button or wove this ‘hand-made’ shawl? Was he or she young? Old? Happy going about their daily work, or forced to work in unsavoury conditions? In the vastness of Seattle’s largest department store I began to realise that there were countless chains of untold stories behind every fashion piece on our shelves, and I became troubled that I understood so little of how they had arrived there.
Studying economics at university, I learned of the shortfalls of the 20th century models of philanthropy and foreign aid. Whether through dumping our excess commodities or funding short-term ‘feel-good’ aid projects, it was clear that much of our aid was not lifting the developing world out of poverty at all, but rather entrenching them further into it.
When I moved to London in 2008, through the Ethical Fashion Forum I discovered the many companies, both small and large that were peering into their supply chains and actively cleaning them up as a matter or good business practice. To me, this was enlightened capitalism and I saw this movement as the little sister of the organic, fair trade food movement, though interestingly this time it was about connecting women; the greatest consumers of fashion, with women; the greatest producers of fashion, in an interesting new way.
Working in finance, I needed an outlet from the monotony of the stuffy corporate world, so I began to write about these issues in my spare time, embarking on a personal journey to understand the potential for positive impact of the fashion sector on women in the context of international development.
Over the years I’ve seen the extent to which garment supply chains are rife with labour abuses such as forced overtime, excessive working hours, poverty-level wages and denial of worker rights. Adding to this, the excessive use of energy, water, and chemicals in garment production is a horrendous tragedy of our time as it causes widespread health issues amongst workers and irreparably destroys our natural environment.
I also know that, across the globe, women are the preferred workers in garment factories mostly due to the sexist notion that they are more docile in nature, that their labour costs less and their nimble fingers can produce more. Learning that women comprise 80% of the global garment workforce, I realised that this exploitation in the garment sector can also, by and large, be seen through the lens of women’s oppression.
Whilst there is no question that the global fashion industry is exploitative, it is important to ask where female garment workers are coming from and if they are choosing this type of employment as an alternative to much less preferable forms of employment. Could it be that despite the pain of leaving rural families and farms behind, recent generations of women are seizing a new opportunity for economic autonomy and stepping onto the first rung of the economic ladder in societies where women’s roles have typically been more traditional, or where a woman’s only choice for employment was through activities such as prostitution? What are the implications of this painful process of economic growth, and is there any silver lining?
Reading up on this, I found an interesting study by Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, an economist at Yale School of Management whose research in Bangladesh found that the presence of apparel jobs appears to increase enrolments of girls in school, particularly for young girls. His study confirms that a doubling of garment jobs in a given area causes a 6.71 percent increase in the probability that a 5-year-old girl will be in school. The study also found that girls who live in villages with garment factories marry and have children later than the girls who grow up in villages without factories, thus helping to lower the staggering birth rate and adding value to the economy.
What is more, studies confirm that for every dollar a woman earns, she invests 80 cents in her family. Conversely for every dollar a man earns, he invests 30 cents in his family and is more likely to spend money on alcohol and other vices. Studies also show that when a woman holds her own assets and generates her own income, her money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently her children are healthier. If this is not a sound basis for future economic development policies and corporate responsibility initiatives to be built upon, I don’t know what is.
Now working as an Ethical Compliance Specialist on behalf of many of the UK’s high street retailers, my vantage point has changed but my interest in using the fashion sector as platform to impact the lives of women has only grown. Peering into supply chains on a daily basis, I see the struggle and contribution of women everywhere and it reminds me that in our own not-so-distant history, it was through the same hard work and insistence of better working conditions that England’s poor lifted themselves out of poverty.
As a woman, I love the element of creativity and self-expression that fashion offers, and over the years I have also come to love knowing that the women who grew the cotton, wove the cloth and stitched the hems of my dress worked in safe conditions and were paid a decent price for their efforts. In the years ahead, I’m hopeful that by retailers’ more enlightened management of supply chains, women will increasingly be empowered economically, improving the lives of their children and societies in their wake.
Posted by Elizabeth Maleki Raee