With an explosion of gender neutral lines for kids & babies* have you ever wondered who these clothes are really benefiting? There is it turns out a dirty truth in the supply chain of some ‘gender neutral’ clothing: the empowerment of girls in the west on the back of the misery of the world’s poorest women and girls.
Clothing is, at its Heart, a Business Propelled by Women & Girls
The garment industry is comprised of about 75% women. Clothing production is a complex process and women are heavily involved in all stages, including the growing of cotton, picking, cleaning, milling, spinning into thread, weaving or knitting into fabric, dying, printing, cutting, sewing, checking, labelling, packaging and sending. And most of this occurs in the developing world. The primary consumers of clothing (by volume of clothing purchased) are also women.
Women & Girls also Pay the Price for Cheap Clothing and Large Profits
Clothing may be a basic need, or even a pleasurable pastime, but it is also big business. A business that requires very low staff overheads, large & rapid production volumes in order to maintain very significant profit margins. It is not a model that lends itself to ethical business practice and female workers shoulder the burden of the model. In this industry (in developing countries where most clothing is made) pay is very low and hours are long (90 hour weeks during peak seasons), basic worker safety is not a requirement, the right to bargain collectively does not exist, sick leave, pregnancy leave, or maternity leave unheard off. Women are paid less for doing the same job, and are barred from the senior roles. Sexual harassment is unchecked, female children are often found working long hours for virtually no pay doing ‘outsourced work’ such as sewing on sequins. Forced labour in cotton mills is not uncommon in cultures where young women with little or no education need to first save a large dowry (payment) to obtain a marriage and subsequent economic security. In developing countries clothing brands are simply taking advantage of a lack of employment legislation, or a lack of enforcement of it, including any gender equity laws, to keep their costs very low. But locally made is not a panacea, because in developed countries clothing companies also profit from gender inequality – salaries being significantly lower in female dominated industries (like cutting and sewing) than in the equivalently skilled male dominated industries.
So in what has to be one of the great (but not greatest) ironies of fashion, the clothing industry which is predominantly propped up by a female consumer base, survives and thrives on the wide scale exploitation of other women.
Clothing Design and Marketing Reeks of Gender Inequality
It is not just in the making of clothes that women pay a heavy price. Recently there has been greater recognition that children’s toys and clothing play a critical role in reinforcing the stereotyped messages of gender. Children’s clothing is overwhelming designed and marketed in a way that tells girls to be pretty girlfriends, interested only in make-up and kittens; exploring science, business, trades and technology is out of bounds. For boys the messaging focusses on transport and science and reinforces the idea that caring and nurturing roles are a no no. The messaging contained in clothing simply reinforces for children the many other gender based divisions present in our society.
Given the issues both in the clothing production chain and in the marketing of kids clothing, gender inequality can ONLY be addressed by a focus on women’s empowerment throughout the clothing production chain. BUT it is not.
GAP recently launched a range of gender neutral clothing for “girls who know being a girl means being anything you want”, but given that GAPs gets a ‘D Grade’ for workers’ rights’ in their countries of operation, clearly it is only some girls GAP wants to help be anything they want. Those others, who they need for their profit margins, well GAP is not really interested in their potential. While some argue that being employed in the clothing industry is better than no employment at all for many young women, this is a nonsense argument that would have all unethical business practice, and violations of human rights in workplaces remain unchecked. Because really getting killed on the job due to your companies’ cut price business model, being subject to constant sexual violence, being bound to indentured labour contracts, being locked into your workplace 24 hours a day for three year terms, is, it turns out not really doing much for the empowerment of poorer women.
What Can be Done?
When clothing companies with opaque supply chains and a fast fashion model start offering their ‘gender neutral or unisex’ kids clothes (which many other are jumping on) as a solution to the problems of gender inequity and female exploitation in the world, we should all laugh very very loudly and point out their complicity in creating & maintaining the problem in the first place. Then we should turn around and buy our kids clothing from places like Freedom Kids, Jill and Jack Kids, DUNS of Sweden and muka kids, small ethical businesses who understand that empowering girls (and boys) in the developed world can be done while also empowering their counterparts in the developing world through ethical, more transparent clothing supply chains. In addition, we should ask brands hard questions about their supply chains, ask them to prove with independently verified documentation and data (not pretty words) exactly how they making their production more ethical, more fair and better for women & girls.
* As the term indicates ‘gender neutral or unisex’ clothes for kids is clothing designed to be, completely neutral of any indicators of gender. No stereotypical gender based slogans, imagery or messages, the clothing is not marketed as being a particular gender, and the cut of the clothing means it can be worn by all children. Interestingly, until around 8 years boys and girls have the same body shape and size, so differences in clothing shape & size are entirely unnecessary physically. The terms are also used (somewhat oxymoronically) for clothing free of stereotypical ‘feminine’ messages marketed only at girls.