Getting your knickers in a knot about ethical clothing

12 Apr

Writing for The Independent on 8th April, Joan Smith ponders the important topic of appropriate frillies for feminists*. In her piece, Joan, quite rightly, asserts her right to wear any knickers she jolly well chooses. And that’s fair enough, I’m a fan of nice undies myself, and can fully see her point. However, Joan then drifts off into some very murky territory.

In describing the opening of a new high street clothing store in London, she dismisses it’s customers desire for cheap but stylish garments as some strange quirk of the English, whom she believes:

“…like a bargain, even if the fabric is horrible and it was made by women working for 5p an hour in cramped factories in Bangladesh.”

Apparently, all these bargain hunters should be forking out for designer labels, just as Joan does, because said labels are produced ethically. This notion brings two points to mind.

Firstly, most of the women frequenting the store Joan mentions do not have the necessary disposable income to shop at the kind of outlets she favours. They don’t buy cheap clothes because of some strange, national idiosyncrasy, they buy them because it is all they can afford.

Secondly, since when have designer labels been more ethical than cheaper ones? In the last ten years I have read numerous reports of extremely high profile (and expensive) brands being produced by people working in the very same conditions as those who produce less expensive (and lower status) items. And even if a specific brand does treat it’s workers ethically, it does not mean that the materials which are used in the manufacturing process are from ethical sources**.

The clothing industry is rife with exploitation. That isn’t to say that all companies are the same, many have made concerted efforts to ensure the people they and their contractors’ employ receive a decent wage, and work in good conditions. Some have even turned these efforts into a marketing tactic***. However, it is wrong to assume that simply because one garment is more expensive than another it has been produced fairly.

So yes, Joan can call herself a feminist even if she does wear designer clothes, but her credentials look a little shaky when she derides other women for the contents of their wardrobes.

* See ‘Why can’t a feminist wear frilly knickers?

** Read about the inequities in cotton production

*** An example of a fair trade clothing company – ironically this company have a line at Top Shop, one of those cheap high street stores

More information about the clothing industry’s use of sweatshops.

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