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Women In Fashion by Runa Ray

Designer and environmentalist RUNA RAY talks about women’s rights in the fashion industry, demand for better workplace conditions and the fashion impact fund.

Marine Serre Fall Winter 2022.23 Presentation, Photo Courtesy of DSCENE

The fashion industry has most times been associated with women. And despite making up more than half of the total workforce in the fashion industry, women hold fewer leadership positions in top fashion companies.

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As a fashion environmentalist and a woman, my body of work lies in the integration of environment and social justice within the fashion industry. This has led me to work with several ready-to-wear and couture houses to understand the implications of the business, its demands, and the role of women.

My involvement with the United Nations and the Council of Fashion Designers of America ensures that we keep the sustainable development goals alive and help businesses adhere to them. To understand the fashion industry, one must understand the difference between fashion and clothes and how they tend to be related within the industry

Fashion design deals more with the generation of ideas, whereas the clothing industry produces the garments that are generated from design ideas.

The basic primary function of clothes is to protect, and fashion has a more profound emotional purpose.

Fashion has gone through its cycles in history and is of utmost importance when it comes to personal expression, from that of rebellion, the birth of cool, and several movements that have come about at the turn of the century. Fashion can transmit information about the culture we live in or mark the assimilation within that society.

Fashion differs from clothing, where it is the primary tool to express someone’s identity and categorize who we are. Both fashion and clothes make up the fashion industry, which has two major schools—the school of couture and that of ready-to-wear. Depending on your career choice, you could decide which school would suit you best.

Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes that women are often obliged to adhere to and portray women as passive and flexible. Gender discrimination runs deep throughout all countries in which garments are currently produced. Women are frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment.

Both industries are built on an invisible structure that is deep and opaque. As designers labor to create beautiful pieces, the hidden crew of bonded labor, children and women, worked on churning out fabrics, dyeing garments, and hand sanding denim in small enclosures with no ventilation, many dying because of occupational diseases.

Most workers in the ready-made sector are women. The industry tends to rely on low-paid female labor to compete and maximize profits in a highly competitive global market. It is estimated that approximately 80% percent of apparel workers are women, though women are always employed on a lower rung of salary compared to their male counterparts.

Women are desirable in the garment industry because employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes that women are often obliged to adhere to and portray women as passive and flexible. Gender discrimination runs deep throughout all countries in which garments are currently produced. Women are frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment.

It is the seed that feeds us and clothes us; fashion’s waste also accounts for food waste. While food wastage is one of the largest global challenges tackled today, one must realize how inextricably linked fashion is to food—with perfectly arable land being used for commercial crops to support the fashion industry.

Most times, we are oblivious to the hidden costs of fashion, and how women are directly impacted by fast fashion and the food insecurity that comes with it.

Marine Serre Fall Winter 2022.23 Presentation, Photo Courtesy of DSCENE

The Rana Plaza Tragedy

With Zara landing in New York at the beginning of the 1990s, it was the first time people heard the term “fast fashion.” It was coined by the New York Times to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores. This “fast fashion” led to a multitude of disasters, and it has taken us only three decades to realize and take action.

Fast fashion caused the Rana Plaza tragedy, which occurred on the 24th of April 2013, and accounted for 1,134 dead and approximately 2,500 injured.

Workers were threatened to have their salaries withheld if they did not turn up for work, despite the warning signs of cracks that had appeared on the building the day before. More than half of the garment workers were women and their children who were left in the nursery

Women and the Industry

Women’s rights within the fashion industry are questionable. Hundreds of millions of women work informally without any protection, especially in the fashion industry, where no formal contracts exist.

People working informally often have no voice to demand better work conditions or pay. This is especially true for women who also face sexual harassment, violence, and restrictions on their reproductive rights.

Women are under-represented in leadership positions in the industry. In addition, compared with businesses owned by men, enterprises owned by women are smaller, employ fewer people, and are more concentrated in sectors with limited opportunities for profit and growth. In the global fashion industry, when women are paid, their jobs tend to reflect gender stereotypes and provide relatively low earnings, poor working conditions, and limited opportunities for career advancement. On average, women are paid less than men, even when women perform the same or equal-value jobs.

Companies that are able to retain and motivate female workers and have more women in top leadership positions enjoy financial returns, with women being able to understand and respond to complex problems by incorporating more amicable and diverse solutions

Fashion is like an onion. All layers are industries supporting its core, while it is bound strategically by the skin of glamour. Fashion is expected to grow by 60% by 2030. Yet, we do not pause to think about the vicious layers of gender inequality and women’s rights.

Women are life-givers of this planet, and fashion has a large role to play when it comes to women’s health. Luckily sustainability in fashion helps foster change in fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. It combats the large carbon footprint created by the fashion industry and fast fashion. It does so by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and overall climate change that could possibly prevent millions of premature deaths over the next century.

As natural nurturers, women impact natural resource management through their various roles in households, the economy, and society. Women are not only more affected by these problems but also possess ideas and leadership to solve them.

Companies that are able to retain and motivate female workers and have more women in top leadership positions enjoy financial returns, with women being able to understand and respond to complex problems by incorporating more amicable and diverse solutions

Marine Serre Fall Winter 2022.23 Presentation, Photo Courtesy of DSCENE

The Fashion Impact Fund

The Fashion Impact Fund helps amplify the voices of women who are change-makers and disruptors, women in the fashion industry who are taking a stand and working towards making this planet a better place. They do so by ensuring that everyone’s needs are met and that the sustainable development goals of the United Nations are adhered to in every way. The fund is also responsible for alleviating women entrepreneurs and giving them a platform where they can be heard, supported, and followed.

I am absolutely thrilled to host Fashion Stories, powered by the Fashion Impact Fund. Fashion Stories is a weekly interview show exploring conscious fashion with changemakers, disruptors, and innovators who uplift and champion the global South Asian community. [Hosted by fashion designer and environmentalist Runa Ray, Fashion Stories is available on Rukus Avenue Radio—Dash Radio’s exclusive South Asian Radio Station, entertaining 5.8 million listeners per month.]

This unique show narrative is powered by Fashion Impact Fund, an NGO dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in transforming fashion for people and the planet. The charitable fund is committed to advancing women-led programs that harness education as a transformative tool to evolve an equitable, inclusive, and regenerative fashion ecosystem

Through the journey of Fashion stories, I get to showcase the stories of incredible women making a difference in their respective fields of fashion and sustainability. I get to shed light on the critical role they play in impacting change for the future of fashion and women entrepreneurs, echoing the ethos of social and environmental justice.

Some of my interviews exclusively for Rukus Avenue Radio showcase some notable and progressive female fashionistas and environmentalists from South Asian countries, including Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Some of the personalities include:

  • Afsana Ferdousi, Fashion Designer and Founder, Afsana Ferdousi
  • Anuje Farhung, Designer, Creator, Educator, and Founder, House of Farhung
  • Bandana Tewari, Fashion Journalist and Sustainability Activist
  • Huma Adnan, Creative Director, FNK Asia
  • Josie Mackenzie, Founding Director, AMMA Natural Textiles
  • Lonali Rodrigo, Founder and Designer, House of Lonali
  • Madhu Vaishnav, Founder and Director, Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development and Saheli Women
  • Mingma Sherpa, Founder, Paila Shoes
  • Nawshin Kahir, Creative Director, Aranya Crafts
  • Sajna Jirel, Executive Director, Hatti Hatti

Yes—fashion has always been connected to women, and the time has come for women to rise to the occasion, take the lead, and help nurture the industry.

References: ILO, McKinsey
Originally published in DSCENE Magazine’s Anniversary Issue
Follow Runa Ray on Instagram – @runaray

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