Your Feminist Shirt Means Nothing if It Was Made in a Sweatshop

women at sewing machines in a garment factory in Bangladesh
Sk Hasan Ali /

Eighty percent of garment workers are young women between 18 and 24. They are overworked, underpaid, and abused. That's where the real female empowerment needs to start.

It is International Women's Day, which means that all the major fast fashion chains will be pushing their feminist-themed tees, tanks, and tote bags, emblazoned with 'girl power' phrases and promises of donating a portion of profits to charities that educate and empower women.

"What's wrong with that?" you might be wondering, detecting an impending attack in my writing tone. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with it, but I take issue with the fact that something very big is being left out of the conversation.

Female Garment Workers Behind Pro-feminist Shirt

I want to know who made the clothes these companies are advertising with such pro-feminist gusto. Unless we talk about the female garment workers whose hands cut and stitched the fabric that is being used as a passionate message board for women's rights, the words ring hollow for me. Take this T-shirt, for example, which popped up on my Twitter feed this morning in a promoted post by Gap.

Curious to learn more, I clicked on the link to see the shirt's details. Under materials, all I found was "imported." That says nothing. It gives absolutely no information about where, how, and who made the shirt, except that it wasn't in the U.S.

Digging deeper, I found limited information about P.A.C.E., the "Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement" program that GAP said it will donate $10,000 to annually, in an effort to "give the women who make our clothes the tools, knowledge and confidence to raise their voices."

Donating to a Foundation Is Not the Same as Direct Assistance

Okay. That sounds nice. But I'd rather see direct assistance given to garment workers in the form of fair pay. Nothing boosts a woman's confidence faster than paying her properly for her work. Give her the money she deserves, along with safe working conditions and quality care for her children, and her confidence will skyrocket faster than GAP's pathetic "65-80 hours of training specially tailored to their culture and community" could ever provide. Throw in some health benefits, vacation, and evening reading classes, and now we're really talking.

But companies don't do this because it's far easier and cheaper to pay money into a foundation that does some amount of good than to revamp the entire system on which their retail dominance is built.

Garment Industry Is Notoriously Cruel to Women

The garment industry, you see, is notoriously cruel to women. It employs 60 million people directly (and twice that indirectly), and 80 percent of these are young females between the ages of 18 and 24. They are among the lowest paid workers in the world. As I wrote in 2016, citing a report by Fashion Revolution,

"Bangladesh’s minimum wage is estimated to cover only 60 percent of the cost of living in a slum. The minimum wages in Cambodia and China need to be double in order to cover the basic cost of living. In many families, children are raised by relatives in distant villages while their mothers live and work in textile factories in the city, rarely coming home for visits."

It's the clothing retailers who are the big winners in all this, and everyone else loses. The garment workers suffer in fire-prone factories, sometimes locked in to ensure nothing is stolen, working inhumane hours to meet absurdly high quotas, and exposed to toxic chemicals in conditions that the UN recently declared "a state of environmental and social emergency."

Consumers, at the other end of the line, either pay dirt-cheap prices for clothes that are essentially disposable (a.k.a. fast fashion), or they are duped into paying extraordinarily high prices for high-fashion brand names, like Hugo Boss, Giorgi Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors, that produce their clothing in the very same low-cost Bangladeshi factories as Benetton, Mango, Primark, etc. In the words of Christy Hoffman of UNI Global Union, a global trade union federation, referring to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse:

"You had the entire fashion industry constructed on practices of complete disregard for human life. You had these big name brands operating in places that were unfit to even walk through the door."

While some things have improved, most of it hasn't. I'm of the opinion that, unless a company boasts loudly about rock-solid, detailed, and provable social and environmental certifications with good reputations and trusted symbols -- such as GOTS organic cotton, Fairtrade label, and Bluesign dye treatment, to name a few -- you should assume the article of clothing has been produced under conditions that have been described as "modern slavery."

Celebrate International Women's Day by Carefully Choosing the Clothes You Buy

Back to International Women's Day. The best way you could celebrate women's day, not only today but every day, is by choosing carefully the clothes you buy because this is where women's wellbeing is truly at stake. Be highly selective. Support only those companies that you know are supporting the women they hire with fair pay, safe working conditions, and good child care.

"How will I know?" you ask. The companies that do this will make it very clear to you. There will be none of this half-hearted greenwashing or social-washing or whatever you want to call it. There will be data, names, maps, third-party certifications, personal stories, traceable links. It won't be hard to dig for more information because the company's top priority is to give you everything you want to know. If they're actually doing it, they'll make sure you know it. (Read TreeHugger, too, because we cover a lot of these progressive and fair-minded companies.)

Think of this next time you're shopping: "Garment factories in the Global South have caused unfathomable human misery" (via i-D). That misery is driven by indiscriminate shopping, by mindless consumption, by lack of awareness. But it can change. So, instead of preaching your "go get 'em, girl" message from the front of your t-shirt, do it more subtly and effectively -- by buying a fairtrade-certified shirt that you know is putting real power into the hands of the woman who made it.

Take a moment to watch the following trailer for documentary "The True Cost." It's a film everyone should watch.