Women comprise approximately 70 to 80 percent of the fashion industry’s workforce – an industry that has long been rife with gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls even while the majority of its consumers are female. Every aspect of the industry has systemic issues which need to be addressed – from the unfair wages and dangerous labour conditions suffered by garment workers daily to the rape and trafficking of models to the fact that women hold less than 25 percent of the leadership positions in fashion companies.
The fashion industry needs these structural, systemic issues to be addressed and for industry policies to reflect these shifts for women in the industry to begin thriving in safe environments. Without the policy changes and cooperation of brands, consumer demand for ethical industry practices, and effective legislation by governments, fashion will remain an unsafe industry for women on many fronts even while women are its target customers. Yet there is hope as forward-looking brands are beginning to wake up to the need for change.
If you work in or are connected to the fashion world in any way, here are 16 ideas for taking action to stop violence against women in all its forms in your industry. While not everything on this list may be suitable for your particular company or situation, we hope that this will be a useful starting point. If you have any other suggestions and tips, please do share them in the comments section.
Introduction by Susanna Lim and Regina Yau. Researched and written by Susanna Lim. Additional research and content by Regina Yau
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Action for Fashion #1: Make harassment prevention training mandatory
Whether you are a factory owner, the head of a modelling agency, or the CEO of an apparel company, consider making sexual harassment prevention programmes a mandatory part of management and employee training as well as health and safety policies. For example, the Better Work Jordan programme conducted sexual harassment prevention training in partnership with Jerash Garment & Fashion Manufacturing. The training provided practical guidance on how to prevent and deal with sexual harassment, including setting and enforcing effective policies, teaching managers and workers to recognise and intervene in cases of sexual harassment, and deepening the management’s understanding of how sexual harassment adversely affects workers and the workplace.
Action for Fashion #2: Educate workers about their rights
If women in the garment industry are empowered to understand their civil and human rights, they are in a far better position to advocate for themselves against unjust wages, poor working conditions, physical and sexual abuse, or any form of harassment. For example, an initiative between Global Fund for Woman, C&A Foundation and Gender at Work helps female garment workers learn about their rights, how to secure these rights, and to become leaders in creating systemic change which is critical in preventing violence. “We believe in the power of women to change their own lives and to drive sustainable change in the garment industry. Together, we can end gender-based violence, ensure safe and equal working conditions, and empower women workers,” said Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women.
Action for Fashion #3: Set up a safe complaints mechanism
Social audits conducted in garment or textile factories are often insufficient for detecting workplace harassment, sexual assault, and poor working conditions. These audits are typically reliant on in-factory interviews and rarely elicit candid answers from factory workers who fear being fired. Setting up a complaints mechanism independent of factories is crucial for providing women with a safe channel to report incidents of harassment, violence, and health hazards without fear of reprisal. One such programme was launched in Lesotho by two local women’s rights organisations – the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho, and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho. This programme provides a toll-free information line for workers to safely make a complaint. Safe complaints mechanisms should also be part of standard health and safety best practices further up the fashion supply including for models and staff of fashion companies.
Action for Fashion #4: Prioritise environmental safety for garment workers
Hazardous factory environments resulting from negligent management and an emphasis on cost-cutting has been a longstanding issue in the garment industry, with the majority of the female workforce often considered disposable. As a matter of best practices, factories and the apparel brands need to prioritise worker safety lest their wilful neglect of workers’ safety ultimately costs both lives and profit. For example, after the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, where at least 1,132 garment workers were killed due to negligent management and dangerous working conditions, the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety was formed. The accord involved 222 apparel companies as signatories committing themselves to the “goal of a safe and sustainable Bangladeshi RMG industry in which no worker needs to concern herself or himself with fire hazards, building collapses and other catastrophes that can be prevented with the institution of reasonable health and safety measures.” Do not wait until lives are lost – start now.
Action for Fashion #5: Include responsible termination policies in contracts
In an ideal world, all labour contracts would be written in accordance with the International Labour Standards on Employment Security. Yet workers in the garment industry often have their contracts terminated at short notice and without sufficient compensation, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and exploitation including forced sex work. While factories that terminate their employees unlawfully should be held accountable, brands who hire these factories should also take responsibility. For example, fashion companies can insist that contracts with factories also include clauses that ensure workers are treated fairly in the event of any disruption or layoffs. For example, when the Jerzees de Honduras factory was closed down in response to worker organizing, Fruit of the Loom, a Honduran apparel company, committed to reopening the factory, rehiring the workers, recognising the workers’ union, and engaging in collective bargaining.
Action for Fashion #6: Make supplier lists and wages of workers public information
A small but increasing number of fashion brands and retailers are beginning to publicly hold themselves accountable to their customers by publishing lists of their suppliers and contractors as well as the wages of their workers. Sharing such information is part of the transparency and accountability that is needed as part of preventing abuses in any stage of the supply chain. It also fosters trust in customers who can rest assured that their money is spent on clothing made in safe and fair working environments. Target Australia, for example, was one of the first Australian retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and one of the first Australian retailers to publicly commit to publishing details of its factory suppliers.
Action for Fashion #7: Collaborate for change
In the fashion industry, there is the ever-present possibility of something going wrong at each stage of sourcing and production, including the sexual abuse and harassment of female staff, contractors, and workers. Most clothing brands do not own their own factories or modelling agencies but they do have the leverage to influence how these companies treat their workers and contractors. And one of the ways in which they can amplify their influence is to enter into collaborations with advocacy groups. For example: Fair Wear, a multi-stakeholder organisation, seeks to promote a better way of making clothes where workers feel safe, respected and receive fair wages. Fair Wear tackles complex problems with top apparel brands, such as payment of a living wage and ending gender-based violence, by uncovering new solutions and driving step-by-step improvements that create real change for the people who work in garment factories.
Action for Fashion #7: Unions! Unions! Unions!
Historically, since the Industrial Revolution during which clothing began to be mass-produced in factories, worker and labour unions have been a way for garment workers to collectively bargain for better workers’ rights and safety. Today, garment workers continue to fight to unionise even though many garment factory owners are anti-union, using threats and attacks against workers to break up unions. As part of combating below-minimum-wage pay and sexual harassment, models have also started unions, such as Model Alliance, which fights for fair pay, good working conditions, and sustainable practices in fashion for models and in the overall industry. Whether you are a garment worker, model, junior staff or designer at a fashion company, gather your co-workers and start a union if none exists in your part of the world yet. If you are a factory owner, find ways of working with unions that are win-win. And if you are a fashion brand, do not turn a blind eye to union-busting at factories that manufacture your products. Instead, see supporting unions as part of building sustainability into the industry that will benefit everyone in the long run.
Action for Fashion #8: Push for legislation for the safety and well-being of models
Fashion models are typically hired on contract from modelling agencies. This puts them in a precarious position with few protections, leaving them vulnerable to sexual and other abuse and complicating any attempts to challenge agents and clients on matters including wage theft, forced starvation, and sexual harassment. One of the ways of providing models with equitable labour and human rights is for lawmakers to pass and enforce legislation protecting them. In California, Assembly Member Marc Levine has introduced legislation which advocates say provides the strongest labour protections in the industry thus far. The bill, AB-2359, was introduced to expand the labour rights of fashion models, including protecting them from dangerous standards of “thinness” commonly perpetuated by the industry.
Action for Fashion #9: Protect underage models (better yet – DON’T HIRE THEM)
Contrary to the glamorous stereotypes perpetuated by movies and glossy magazine spreads, modelling is a career that involves long gruelling hours, low wages, high-stress photoshoots and constant travel. It has also been an open secret in the fashion world that young models (many of them underaged) often end up being sexually assaulted by the people they work with such as agents, managers, and photographers. The #MeToo movement has presented a hopeful shift – shining a light on the sexual abuse and harassment which have long plagued the industry. However, many younger models still do not feel safe speaking up when they are abused for fear of being completely shut out of the industry before getting a foot in the door at all – effectively ending their careers. Brands need to take more accountability and come together with others in the industry to better protect models, either by offering them more protections or deciding not to hire girls under 18 altogether. Two brands in France, Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton have already pledged to stop using underage models.
Action for Fashion #10: Support efforts to combat human trafficking
Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is one of the major forms of gender-based violence with 71% of trafficking victims being women who are sold into indentured labour and/or sexual slavery. The fashion industry is particularly notorious for cases of human trafficking, in which workers are physically confined in locked workplaces, physically or sexually abused, illegally surveilled by their employer and denied healthcare. These cases are common at various stages of the fashion supply chain from garment workers in textile factories to the fashion models walking the runways. As part of addressing this huge human rights violation, responsible apparel companies and fashion brands need to lobby for, support, and collaborate with lawmakers in their respective countries to pass and implement strong legislation prohibiting and punishing the act of human trafficking.
Action for Fashion #11: Make prevention of gender-based violence part of your organisation’s DNA
If you are planning to start a new fashion brand or are already running a fashion start-up, include best practices and business ethics that makes a commitment against the perpetration of violence against women, ensuring that workers and staff are treated fairly at every step of the production process. An excellent example of a fashion company which is showing the world that fashion can be a powerful instrument to push action on sustainability, empowering women and combatting gender-based violence is the small Turkish brand, This is Mana, which works with two women’s cooperatives, providing interim work for 68 women. Founder Damla Özenç explained that the brand ensures that all women hired are working in humane conditions and are compensated appropriately for their time and effort.
Action for Fashion #12: Put your money where your mouth is
If you own an apparel company but are not sure how to begin addressing the issue of systemic violence against women in the fashion industry, a good first step is to donate a portion of your company’s earnings to charities and nonprofits that work in this area. Your company can either include this donation in your annual corporate social responsibility budget, create special collections for raising proceeds for the cause, or even use your brand to back hybrid campaigns that raise awareness while encouraging people to come together to donate for causes such as ending violence against women. For example, Pomellato has long championed women’s rights — and on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it raised awareness on domestic abuse with a dedicated social media campaign and the help of Chiara Ferragni. The Italian jeweller launched the awareness campaign and crowdfunding initiative to support women who were victims of domestic violence.
Action for Fashion #13: Promote slow and sustainable fashion
With the fashion industry finally listening to consumer demand for eco-friendly designs and products, there are a growing number of designers using more sustainable business models for their brands. Two examples include Nanushka designer Sandra Sandor from Hungary, who has launched several sustainability initiatives focusing on protecting the planet, and Maggie Marilyn from New Zealand, who promotes the idea of a circular lifecycle for clothes to make them last forever. Both of their approaches are stark and welcome departures from the current fast fashion model which is becoming less and less viable.
Action for Fashion #14: Designers – use your runways and your influence!
As the creative force driving the fashion industry, fashion designers, especially those who are household names or who work for high-profile brands, have the power to influence pop culture through their sartorial art. With that influence at their fingertips, it would be a natural progression to use their voices through their designs, the runway, and press interviews to bringing attention to the violence and exploitation of women in the sector. For example: Myriam Chalek, a French-born designer, drew attention to the #MeToo movement by casting sexual abuse survivors as models in an NYFW runway show. “If we can raise awareness about sexual misconduct, rape, and sexual harassment we are one step forward in resolving this issue,” she told Glamour magazine.
Action for Fashion #15: Social media influencers – use your channels to drive change!
With the 21st century being the Age of the Internet, social media influencers who are focused on fashion and have thousands of followers can use their channels to shine a spotlight on issues including sexual abuse, mistreatment and low wages of women within the fashion industry, and to push for positive change. Many, including Aditi Mayer, Chloe Helen Miles, Emma Slade Edmondson, and Venetia La Manna are already championing everything from ‘slow fashion’ to garment workers’ rights. Additionally, fashion industry insiders are also utilising the power of social media to drive change. Notable awareness campaigns within the fashion industry have included the Pay Up Fashion campaign and Fashion Revolution Week, both not-for-profit social enterprises based in the UK.
Action for Fashion #16: Consumers – demand ethical and sustainable practices from brands!
Finally, consumers play a huge part in shaping the fashion industry and pushing for change. A new generation of millennial customers are growing far more invested in sustainability, ethical sourcing and fair wages for the clothes they buy. Brands are now paying attention to these growing patterns in conscientious consumption and are increasingly shifting to more sustainable models for their businesses. As consumers become more vocal and continue to demand change, safer and fair environments are created as a result for women in the fashion industry.
All pictures used are Creative Commons images (from top to bottom):