Climate change, demographics, water, food, energy, global health, women’s empowerment – these issues are all intertwined. We cannot look at one strand in isolation. Instead, we must examine how these strands are woven together. —Ban Ki-moon
There are days, like today, where I feel as though all the stories are the same, we’ve merely switched up the names a bit. Twenty years ago, June of 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford was co-host of a popular morning talk show and was active in causes designed to empower women. Somewhere along the way, someone convinced her that putting her name on a clothing label would be a good idea. The label would be affordable and provide stylish fashion to women who couldn’t afford the big designer names. Empowerment; that’s a good thing, right? There was just one problem.
June 26 came along and the chief executive of National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America told Congress that the clothes were being made by 13- and 14-year-olds in Honduras. Even worse, those children were being forced to work 20-hour days. Empowerment? No, enslavement.
The backlash against Mrs. Gifford was quick and hard. She was demonized from every direction. Never mind that it was Wal-Mart, not Mrs. Gifford, who had made the choice of suppliers. No one ever bothered to picket the people directly responsible. Instead, because her name was attached to the brand, it was Mrs. Gifford who had to take the responsibility.
Celebrity labels often have this problem. Putting their name on clothes can produce a perpetual revenue stream for the celebrity, often without them making any actual investment in the products at all. Their name, their face in the advertising, virtually ensures that the products will sell well. The celebrity can then use a portion the profits to support a cause of empowerment to a specific group, typically one related to their own background. Sounds like a can’t miss scenario, doesn’t it?
But it does miss. Often. In addition to Mrs. Giffords nightmare, which eventually sunk the label, both Jaclyn Smith and Michael Jordan have lent their names to clothing lines only to have the claim on sweatshop use leveled against them. This is not a new story, and it’s happening again.
This time, it’s Beyonce’s Ivy Park label that’s coming under fire. British newspaper ran a story this past Sunday claiming that the sportswear brand is being manufactured in Sri Lanka by women making mere pittance a day in confining circumstances with strict curfews. That article wasn’t too bad, as it sloppily attempted to connect the brand, and its UK seller, Topshop, to disgraced BHS executive,Sir Philip Green. But then, writer Sirin Kale picked up the story for Vice brand Broadly and took the matter much, much deeper, exposing the severity of the situation.
Beyonce talks a lot about how she wants her Ivy Park brand to be a source of empowerment for women. In an interview with Elle (which also manages to cement Philip Green’s involvement), the music diva says of the brand:
It’s really the essence: to celebrate every woman and the body she’s in while always striving to be better. I called it Ivy Park because a park is our commonality. We can all go there; we’re all welcomed. It’s anywhere we create for ourselves. For me, it’s the place that my drive comes from. I think we all have that place we go to when we need to fight through something, set our goals and accomplish them.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Inspiring, even. I’ve no reason to doubt the singer’s sincerity. But I’m pretty sure the women making those clothes aren’t visiting any parks, either. They do one thing and one thing only: make Ivy Park clothes.
The women who work for the Sri Lankan garment manufacturer make roughly the equivalent of sixty-two cents an hour. They don’t see their families; they live in dormitories on-site. They have strict curfews and their movement is limited. They barely survive. One woman said the $126 a month she makes sewing mesh panels into leggings was not enough to cover her basic expenses. Where’s the empowerment in that?
Now, to be fair, conditions in Sri Lanka are not as bad as those in Bangladesh or Pakistan. The company that owns the sweatshop pays particular attention to the building’s structure and meeting appropriate building codes. Women here are not as likely to be caught in a burning building. I should also mention that their pay is above Sri Lanka’s pitiful excuse for a minimum wage. However, workers would need to be paid nearly three times that minimum, or more than double their current wage, before they can actually live off what they are making.
Working conditions don’t have to be the worst in the world before they become exploitation. When the clothing retails at (approximately) $14 for a headband on up to $250 or so for a dress, someone is being empowered, but it is being done through the exploitation of women whose conditions are desperate enough that they will work for such horrible wages. Millions of dollars will flow into Beyonce’s bank account, and equally so for Topshop, but not for anyone else. Exactly how is that empowering to anyone but Beyonce?
We keep seeing this pattern over and over and over with almost every celebrity label on the market. Beyonce isn’t the only one, she’s just the latest big name who’s making money off women so poor they likely have never even heard of the singer and certainly can’t afford her albums.
As we saw with Mrs. Gifford’s label, though, canceling orders, shutting down the sweatshops, isn’t the answer, either. When Wal-Mart finally pulled the clothing order from the Honduran sweatshop, over 10,000 people lost desperately needed jobs. In Beyonce’s case, the numbers would likely be even higher. It’s not just the workers but entire poverty-ridden countries being exploited by the whole fashion industry.
If Beyonce was really serious about empowering women, she’d make sure those is Sri Lanka were receiving a living wage, even if that means shaving a percentage point off her own profit. If she were serious about empowerment, a portion of the profits could go into the Sri Lankan communities in desperate need of help. If empowerment were really the focus, The singer could support nutrition and education programs for the women making her clothes.
Fashion isn’t about empowerment, though, despite what their marketing packet might say. Fashion is about profit and if that means exploiting large groups of disadvantaged and disenfranchised people, then sadly the fashion establishment finds those terms acceptable.
Celebrity labels are nothing more than an attempt to profit from a name while it’s popular. No one is empowered. No one is given an advantage. It’s all about the money and exploitation. Every. Damn. Time.