In the age of neo-pop culture, feminism is treated like a fad rather than a social justice movement. Suddenly, it’s ‘cool’ to be a feminist, to have a girl squad even if you conform to all the elements feminism fights against, like participating in sl*t shaming and toxic gender roles. Even celebrities have proclaimed themselves as feminists, increasing its widespread appeal, as teenagers scramble to mimic their favorite idol. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that most people no longer hold such a negative view of feminists and that an increasing amount of young women don’t consider feminism a dirty word. However, companies have jumped on the opportunity to brand feminism as a selling point, with shirts reading ‘Grl Pwr’ and ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Forever 21 and H&M, are among the biggest culprits of peddling social justice as a marketing scheme. If they support feminism as they claim, why do their mostly-female employees work in dangerous sweatshops for low wages?
The International Labor Rights Forum signed an accord with H&M in 2014 to protect garment workers from working in hazardous conditions, yet a recent progress update has shown their severe delays in completing vital building repairs. 13 percent of H&M supplier factories could keep workers locked inside during a fire due to neglection of fire and safety standards, and 55 percent of supply factories are still missing proper fire exits; 21 H&M garment workers died and 50 were injured in a fire because of inhumane working conditions, according to The Independent.
Forever 21 is not much better; the company only pays its factory workers $4 an hour in Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 2001, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center sued Forever 21 on behalf of 19 apparel workers in at the retailer’s headquarters. The suit claimed that the workers, employed by contractors for Forever 21, sewed, ironed, and packed clothing six days a week, up to twelve hours a day, earning much less than minimum wage. Workers also described factories infested with rats and cockroaches. These companies are just two examples that demonstrate the way fast fashion harms the women who comprise more than 80% of the garment industry according to Labor Behind the Labor.
All self-proclaimed feminists should advocate against the means fast fashion retailers use to obtain their profits, yet most young people are unwittingly jumping on the social justice bandwagon, as if it’s a hot trend, no different than flowy pants or crop tops. Retailers selling ‘activist apparel’ while using unethical production methods are not only exploiting social justice movements, but trivializing the injustices activists fight against. These companies are making the label ‘feminist’ seem like nothing more than a trendy t-shirt, invalidating the movement and its history. We, as consumers, are apathetic or at least ignorant to the female workers’ lowly wages, undeterred by the blood, sweat, and tears they shed so teen ‘feminists’ can proclaim their ‘Grl Pwr’.
If you want to express your feminist views, buy shirts from free-trade companies rather than ones that exploit female workers. Stores like The Green Box Shop, an Afro-latina owned fair trade business that sells social justice apparel, and Feminist Apparel, which employs ethical, sweatshop-free and environmentally conscious manufacturing practices. I implore all other feminists and social justice activists to stop treating our movements like a trend and support our words with actions, for the sake of all women at home and abroad.