In Issue 07 of In the News, we consider how the pandemic brought attention to often overlooked labor issues, explore the problematic gap between consumer intention and action, spotlight the first couture collection by a Black American fashion designer, and examine the politics of policies that dictate public appearance.
Sustainability & Labor Issues
Tension has continued to build as garment workers struggle with pandemic-related realities on the ground while European and American-based businesses push for higher production levels to meet rising consumer demand. In Bangladesh, exports are growing at a record pace while the country battles new spikes in coronavirus cases. Although the government implemented a two week national lockdown from July 1-14, garment factories were still permitted to operate. And yet, despite evidence of financial revival, many factories are still failing to fairly support laborers. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) is filing complaints in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan (and potentially Bangladesh as well), in an effort to hold some of fashion’s biggest corporations liable for alleged human rights violations in their supply chains. Throughout the pandemic, many labor groups have reported increased cases of wage theft and unfair working conditions, detailed in a recently published report by AFWA. This legal action is considered groundbreaking because it attempts to hold global clothing brands accountable for what takes place in their factories – which has often been circumvented in the past. Some of the companies facing complaints include H&M, Levi Strauss, Tommy Hilfiger, and DKNY. This type of accountability has typically been circumvented by brands in the past, as explained by Don-Alvin Adegeest in a recent piece for Fashion United. Adegeest argues that these pandemic-related issues have “exposed the undeniable truth that extreme labour exploitation forms the core feature of global apparel supply chains. The humanitarian crisis unleashed on garment workers in Asia due to the pandemic-induced recession, was neither unanticipated nor unavoidable. Rather, it was the direct consequence of the actions of global apparel brands located in the Global North, which earn super-profits through the exploitation of workers.”
A similar conclusion is drawn by Business of Fashion in a recent report that explores how “activists and regulators are dialling up scrutiny on brands after fragile protections for garment workers collapsed under pandemic stress.” As the crisis escalated, we saw hundreds of reports of workers being illegally laid off without pay, working in unsafe conditions, and being treated inhumanely. The massive influx of scandals, combined with mandated lockdowns, forced many people to pay attention to these often overlooked issues. Longtime activists, like Alexander Kohnstamm of the Fair Wear Foundation, point out that this moment may offer an opportunity to reset: “I don’t think we should continue to do what we have done for the last twenty years. We need much more drastic and ambitious change.” One key aspect of this much needed change involves “closing the accountability gap.” In the EU, the European Parliament is now moving forward with drafting “Mandatory Due Diligence Legislation” [PDF download] that will force brands to take responsibility for monitoring conditions in their supply chains. This is an unprecedented and powerful step towards holding corporations accountable – and Politico reports that it is already causing some panic amongst CEOs. While Europe forges ahead with this potentially revolutionary directive, the U.S. is slowly inching forward with the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, where most of its factories are located, to help secure better wages and conditions for workers.
Another aspect of supply chain oversight where the U.S. is taking action is in banning products from the Xinjiang region of China because of allegations of forced labour and human rights violations against the area’s Uyghur minority group. We reported on this in Issue 01 and Issue 06 of In The News, but what began as isolated sanctions against cotton products (which were at the center of the controversy) is now expanding in scope. Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill banning all imports from Xinjiang, proposing legislation that would create the assumption that all goods manufactured there are made with forced labor unless proven otherwise. The Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act is not yet a law – it must pass in the House of Representatives first. If signed into action, this policy will cement the massive disruption to many brands’ supply chains that was first instigated with the initial sanctions. Companies may even choose to permanently shift production away from the region, or avoid sourcing materials in China entirely, since it is often difficult to confirm which region materials originated from. The Washington Post reports on how the Xinjiang cotton controversy, in combination with consumer demands around transparency and responsibility, has prompted many brands to rethink their processes and may influence long-lasting changes in global supply chains. The potential implications of the current moment are particularly incredible when we consider them contextually within the global history of cotton. In his book on the subject, Sven Beckert writes about cotton as “a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners” and explores how “these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism.” Recognizing this, it is clear that brands’ decisions regarding how and where they will shift their supply chains could have profound consequences for global socioeconomic systems far beyond the fashion industry.
Watch Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton, give a talk reviewing the global history of cotton and its intersection with industrial capitalism.
Learn more about the complex history of cotton production within the U.S. in the book, Clothed in Meaning.
Also on our radar:
The assasination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has created political instability that may have the corollary effect of destabilizing the country’s supply chains. Visit the digital humanities project Rendering Revolution to better understand the role of dress in Haiti and its complex intersection with political struggle.
Business & Retail
The labor issues detailed above stand in stark opposition to the rapid rise of faster-fashion businesses like Shein. In a Vox article published last week, Terry Nguyen delves into the company’s origins and processes. Like the original fast-fashion brands, Zara and H&M, Shein focuses on bringing thousands of products to market quickly. But compared to Zara’s famous 3-week production cycle, Shein only needs 3 days to create a new product, and prices are significantly lower as well. There’s not yet much information available about the brand’s treatment of its garment workers, and the company has not publicly disclosed workers’ wages or hours. A recent report by Bloomberg News notes, “Shein divulges almost nothing to customers about its origins. Anyone interested in learning more — where, say, Shein sources its materials, how one might get a job there, or even where “there” is — hits one dead-end after another on its slick app.” But while Shein has managed to avoid liability on its inevitable labor issues so far, it has faced consumer backlash and controversy around its dependency on copying others’ designs to fuel its high-speed production cycle and algorithm-driven creation processes.
Several artists and designers have accused Shein of blatantly replicating their work – but in an industry where copying is generally considered legal, not much can be done. The brand has also been called out by outlets like Diet Prada for cultural appropriation and racist missteps. But as Nguyen points out, “it’s hard to imagine Shein embracing corporate accountability without widespread consumer pressure.” And while Shein may be based in China, its customers are mostly not Chinese – the U.S. is its largest market of the 220 countries where it sells products. It’s also the leading shopping app in 50 countries, including the U.S., where it overtook Amazon on the iOS app store in June. This success has attracted funding from major American investors like Sequoia Capital and IDG. The consumers driving Shein’s rise are primarily young, Gen Z shoppers in America – ironically, the same segment that is typically at the forefront of demanding brand accountability and ethics. Bloomberg observes, “those concerns have yet to undermine the appeal of super-low prices and unending variety.” Shein’s continued growth exposes a problematic gap in what consumers say they value, and how they actually spend their dollars.
Im SO over these major brands stealing from black designers. @SHEIN_official STOLE my @sincerelyriaxo designs to a T. They couldn’t even change ONE thing and it’s now one of their highest selling items. They even stole the brands aesthetic. Like Come on pic.twitter.com/ose8DiM9hK— Mariama Diallo ✨ (@MariamaDiallo__) June 11, 2021
Listen to an episode of the Fashion No Filter podcast featuring Robin Givhan and Henrietta Gallina, in which they discuss issues of “performative marketing and smoke and mirror optics of advertising and inclusivity.”
In our Retail as a Portal conversation series, we explore how retail can empower us to produce and consume with positive, social impact and ignite systemic change.
Also on our radar:
The Fashion Roundtable advocacy group has published a new research paper [PDF download] in partnership with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fashion and Textiles, with findings that emphasize pervasive discrimination across the British fashion industry.
Design & Imagemaking
Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond recently unveiled his debut couture collection for his label Pyer Moss as the first Black American fashion designer to show as part of Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week. The show took place at the historic home of Black beauty entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker in Irvington, New York. The event began with an inspiring speech by Elaine Brown, former leader of the Black Panther Party, followed by a musical performance by rapper 22Gz, and the presentation of the collection.
Jean-Raymond explained that the designs represented “inventions by Black people and I wanted to reintroduce them to Black people,” drawing attention to the systemic erasure of African American contributions in the context of American history. The show, entitled “Wat u Iz,” took a surrealist approach in referencing pivotal innovations and exploring the power of expressionism in Black culture. Writing for Grazia, Shelton Boyd-Griffth describes the feat as “a completely new lens on haute couture, interjecting Black American culture and history into the couture cannon…He very much could have went for the cliche couture tropes, like tulle and fancy, pretty gowns, but instead he chose to use this collection to insert Blackness into…a traditionally white Eurocentric space.” Jean-Raymond’s pivotal couture collection will be presented for public viewing with an exhibition at the historic mansion this autumn.
Also on our radar:
The Victoria & Albert Museum has announced an upcoming exhibition on African fashion and design, set to open in 2022. Fashion and Race Database founder Kimberly Jenkins is quoted in The Guardian discussing the significance of combatting “the idea that Africa is not capable or equipped to showcase innovation or creative design” and that we are “finally seeing the creativity of Africa in a substantive way.”
In late June, MetroUK reported that swimming caps by Black-owned brand Soul Cap, which are specifically designed for natural Black hair, had been banned from the Olympics. The news sparked outrage from athletes and backlash from the public, with many arguing that the decision was indicative of systemic racism and ignorance. Within a few days, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) announced on July 2 that the decision was being reviewed and reconsidered. But nearly 3 weeks later, the organization has not confirmed a decision. In the interim, The New York Times published a piece examining the controversy, in which Evan Nicole Brown notes that the issues at stake are much more significant than this one instance: “Even beyond the world of elite athletics, legislation surrounding what is and is not acceptable for Black hair has long been a point of contention, and in some instances, has been simply racist.”
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, with the games set to start this weekend, a group of European politicians have come together to urge that the ban be lifted. In a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup of the European Parliament argued that FINA’s ban “reflects stigmatization of Black hair and leads to institutional inequalities, especially targeting Black women” and asks that the committee both admit that the rules are of “exclusionary nature” and further “establish frameworks and policies to prevent similar cases of exclusion” in the future.
And yet, simultaneously, the E.U.’s top court ruled this week that employers can ban workers from wearing headscarves or religious symbols. Based on two different cases of Muslim women in Germany who were suspended from work for wearing their hijabs, the court said that “a prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers.” In an article for Human Rights Watch, Senior Researcher Hillary Margolis points out the inherently problematic nature of using “neutrality” as a justification, explaining that “the court’s reasoning that allowing religious dress could harm a business’ ability to operate rests on the flawed logic that a client’s objections to employees wearing religious dress can legitimately trump employees’ rights.”
This perspective is corroborated by The New York Times, which details the intersection between rising anti-Muslim sentiment and the rise of legislation across several European countries that aims to ban headcoverings. In a statement on the latest court decision, Maryam H’madoun of the Open Society Justice Initiative argues, “Law, policies, and practicies prohibiting religious dress are targeted manifestations of Islamophobia that seek to exclude Muslim women from public life or render them invisible. Discrimination masquerading as ‘neutrality’ is the veil that actually needs to be lifted.”
Explore our reading list on Fashioning Black Hair to learn more about hair discrimination and the relationship between Black hair and power, beauty, resistance, and identity.
Examine the intersection between appearance policies and discrimination in the research article, “Let My Hair Be.”
Learn more about the practice of veiling as part of Muslim dress within international Muslim minority contexts with the book, Veiling in Fashion: Space and the Hijab in Minority Communities.
Consider nuanced interpretations of religion and culture with the essay, “Wrapped in Meaning: Modest Fashion as a Feminist Strategy.”