Slow Fashion: American Women’s Untapped Purchasing Power

By Adrienne Leonard


Whether we mean to or not, the clothes we wear give an impression of who we are: bold, confident, creative, demure, busy, carefree, or any number of countless combinations of what makes up your character. Whatever your preference, style choices speak to the world. Even ambiguity lets off implications of its own, possibly stronger than those with a deliberate intent. Fashion manufacturers know this and while there are a handful of retailers living by and projecting their own ethics and standards into the world, the vast majority of fashion manufacturing is more reactive to consumer trends than proactive. All of this is reflected in cost, style, and speed of manufacturing to keep the consumer coming back.

Not without cause, in the U.S. 85% of all consumer purchases are made by women. Retailers like Kohl’s, JC Penney’s, Target, Macy’s and more are spending $1 Billion per year to get your attentionThat’s $1 Billion per company to get you to shop at their stores.

What this means is that how women spend their money matters. These extensive budgets are evidence to the fact that there’s a lot of money to be made off of giving women exactly what they want. More to the point, there’s a lot of money being spent by companies to give us a specific impression of how they want us to view their brand. However, what they’re representing on a surface level may not be at all what we’re ultimately spending our money on. While there’s seemingly nothing wrong with a bargain at face value, there is a ripple effect in the fashion industry that most women, quite frankly, would not consciously be associated with.

“In fact, the big brands reap billions of dollars chasing the lowest production costs they can find, moving from one country to another when those costs rise too much. This creates a perpetual race to the bottom, in which workers’ rights are squeezed by the factories that employ them and by the governments that supposedly oversee those factories.”
— David Welsh, Fair Trade for the Global Garment Industry

It often takes something shocking to break the illusion of how cohesively brands represent themselves to the public. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh is a prime example of negligence in the manufacturing world. Workers were forced to enter and work in an unsafe facility with a cracked foundation, which later accounted for 1,100 casualties and thousands more suffering from shock, trauma, and injury. But it is only these extreme events that are getting enough media coverage to briefly lift the veil to how tormenting the conditions can be for those simply trying to earn a living.

“The reality is that industry giants can claim negligence because they don’t technically “own” their factories and thus don’t have to take responsibility for fair compensation.”
— Shannon Whitehead, The True Cost of Fast Fashion: Continuing the Conversation

It’s worth defining our own standards and looking at what we want from a company, consciously and knowing there are no ideals too lofty for them to meet—especially considering the billions that go to advertising. It may mean spending a little more for a pair of shoes, or buying one sweater instead of two or three, but the benefit will be in making the world a better, fairer, and safer place.

There are countless business decisions being made off of our purchases whether we consciously approve of what they decide or not—because we’ve already voted with what speaks loudest, our spending. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter to retailers what we say we care about, it matters far more what we act on, on a daily basis. 

“The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”
— Paulo Coelho

The single most powerful way to bring massive shift is to vote with your dollar. Put your value (whether that’s time, money, or support) into what you value, be it supporting women (who make up well over 80% of the workforce in clothing manufacturing), eco-sustainability, or cruelty-free manufacturing. All these decisions bear a significant impact for someone further down the line, and with enough influence from the consumer market it can lead to lasting change amongst all retailers.

Once it is no longer profitable to keep workers in deplorable conditions, the exploitation, put simply, will end for lack of funding. If we, as consumers are no longer willing to put money towards companies that are not only exploiting customers, but also the employees who have very few other options; there will be not only a need for reform, but a pressing demand for change in order to stay in business. That is, if women were to use their collective purchasing power towards sustainable good.

Most homeworkers in the garment and textile industry are paid by the piece (according to how many items they produce), earn very little, and do not receive overtime pay. Most receive no sick leave or paid vacations.
— WEIGO, Garment Workers

Put your hard-earned money into something revolutionary: living wages, kindness, compassion, fairness, and altruism. It works. Paying living wages to women causing them to earn enough to send their children to school, offers safer and cleaner facilities, and helps break the cycle of poverty and desperation which leads to stronger internal economies. Yes, you might spend more, but you’re also letting manufacturers know this is what you not only want but also expect. As women, we hold the unique power to motivate this shift from the grassroots level, taking our overwhelming consumer majority and put it to work buying ethically sourced clothing (American or international), shopping locally, and checking the standards and practices page of your favorite company. Through this one passive avenue, you can help companies who are already helping women.

Let what you wear say something more about you. Even if for the moment, you’re the only one who knows it is making a difference—That’s enough. Stand behind companies who recognize the problem and insist on being part of the solution. The only obligation change requires is for us to make one better choice at a time, learning to project our values and recognize the value we bring with us every time we act as consumers.