In recent years, large fashion retailers such as Forever 21, H&M and Urban Outfitters have begun selling activism-inspired clothing featuring slogans like “We Should All Be Feminists” and “Girl Power.” In response to the prominence of social justice movements, these brands have targeted young people looking to prove to the world how “woke” they are. However, buying a graphic tee from H&M does not make you more of a women’s rights advocate.
The goal of “fast fashion” retailers is to bring rising trends to consumers for low prices. New products can be introduced and taken away weekly, leading consumers to buy items that might be gone on their next shopping trip. In short, shoppers pay less and companies make more.
In order to rapidly please consumers at such alarming rates, retailers have resorted to using both the cheapest labor and materials they can find, consequently contributing to poor working conditions and pollution in developing countries. In fact, 80 percent of the garment workers in fast fashion factories selling “feminism” for only $9.99 are women between the ages of 18 and 24, many of whom earn less than $3 a day.
Fast fashion exploits activist slogans for a profit and consequently devalues movements that have fought for recognition for decades by making activism into trends you can throw after a week.
“The profits made off of those kinds of shirts usually go towards big corporations who promote unfeminist behavior,” said senior Maddie Lee. “However good the intentions of the consumers or retailers may be, simply buying or making shirts with feminist slogans is never the same as actual activism.”
And if that already isn’t enough to make you rethink half of your wardrobe, fast fashion retailers have a history of mimicking designs from small and independent artists. Most recently, Forever 21 was accused of copying a shirt by a young designer featuring the word “woman” in nine different languages. To make matters worse, the original shirt was created to raise money for women’s health care by donating 25 percent of proceeds to Planned Parenthood.
The good news is there are tons of stores where you can show others how dedicated you are to dismantling the patriarchy without contributing to bad work ethics and conditions.
“My issue with Urban Outfitters is more so their history of cultural appropriation, blatant disregard for the copyrights of small artists and their cultural insensitivity,” wrote Philadelphia Printworks founder Maryam Pugh in an email. “Furthermore, I also take issue with their (and Forever 21’s) reliance on cheap labor. As a result of these concerns, I find any products that they produce bearing activist slogans to be disingenuous.”
Created out of love for do-it-yourself and social justice issues, Philadelphia Printworks is a “community space for creative collaboration around activism.” PPW works to support small artists and spread social justice, while also creating all products ethically.
“I feel that it’s important for every citizen to participate in the democratic process. Screen printing is a medium that allows me to spread a message and to bring awareness around certain topics.”
At the My Sister store, whose slogan is “Fighting Sex Trafficking One Shirt at a Time,” 10 percent of net proceeds are donated to the nonprofit MN Girls Are Not For Sale. Through this partnership, the store supports programs that help identify at-risk youth and women and prevent trafficking. Moreover, the brand ensures all their clothing is exploitation-free by ditching the sweatshops and turning to more ethical production methods
Both these stores are only a few of the hundreds of small businesses selling unique, ethically-produced activist designs. So if you’re looking to make a statement through your clothing, ditch fast fashion and buy from a brand that reflect the goals of the movement you want to endorse.
“I think that making feminism mainstream and more talked about is great, but there are more effective ways to bring this conversation up than buying t-shirts from a big corporation,” Lee said. “At least buy them from places like feminist nonprofits, where your money at least goes towards the cause your shirt claims to support.”