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Is your feminist t-shirt making a difference for women and girls?

Posted on January 19 2018


The feminist movement has been around for decades. In 1920, the 19th amendment granted “American women” the right to vote (in quotation marks of course, because only white women were able to enjoy that right). Unfortunately, it wasn’t until much later that women of all colors and backgrounds were included in the grand United States democracy equation.

In 2018, females all over the world are still fighting for gender equality on many different levels and aspects. For example, Saudi Arabia just allowed women the right to drive—a change that will take place this upcoming June. A power that many take for granted is a huge victory for Saudi women. 

Over the past few years, the feminist movement became stronger and gained popularity around the world. With the power of globalization and social media, women’s rights supporters are tirelessly working to spread the gender equality message—and there’s a lot of merchandise in the market to help communicate it. In a world where news and trends travel so quickly, the pressure of getting products out first can get rather messy, especially in the fashion world.

Remember the historical 2016 presidential election? (Let’s face it, how can anyone forget that?!) Hilary Clinton made history as the democratic presidential nominee, and her heated race against Donald Trump resulted in a lot of remarkable, trendy phrases. When Donald Trump called Hilary Clinton a “nasty woman” in a debate, it was a matter of days before we saw “nasty woman/women” t-shirts and merchandise parading through the streets and the internet.

Women's March 2017 / Photo: Livia Paula

In January of 2017, people all over the world took to the streets participating in the historical “Women’s March” movement, shortly after Donald Trump took the Oval Office. Signs of empowerment and resistance were seen all around the marches, especially amongst the protesters’ clothing and accessories. Phrases such as “Feminist AF,” “The Future is Female,” “We Should all be Feminists” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted” have been seen in t-shirts all around. 

Some of the feminist fashion products sold donate its proceeds to organizations that help women, such as Planned Parenthood. While many want to spread the feminist message, the majority doesn’t seem concerned with how they are made, let alone with the women making them.

In 2014, Fawcett Society became famous with their “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” tops. Emma Watson—an avid advocate for women’s rights—wore one of their pieces on the cover of ELLE UK’s December 2014 feminist issue. However, the clothing company was soon under fire when a Daily Mail reporter alleged that their products were made in a sweatshop by women who were underpaid, and living under inhumane conditions in Mauritius—with 16 women sleeping cramped in a room.

Sweatshop room in Mauritius / Photo courtesy of Craig Hibbert for the Daily Mail

Let’s not forget the cotton used in the making of those “female empowering” tees—especially since conventional cotton pickers are predominantly women and girls. In a 2011 study in Pakistan from the Bonfring International Journal of Data Mining, Hammad Zafar and Abou Bakar stated that cotton pickers complain of dizziness, muscular pain, and suffocation due to pesticides poisoning. Aside from being underpaid compared to male workers, thousands of female workers become victims of various health hazards due to the poor environmental management system, and lack of information.

Pesticides have also been linked with leukemia, lymphoma, cancers of the breast and ovaries amongst female cotton pickers. According to the same study, cotton pickers hardly get any medical treatment and receive little-to-no information on the side-effects of pesticides compared to male cotton pickers. Many women still work during their pregnancy to help sustain her family. With that, cases of miscarriages, stillbirths, and delayed pregnancies have also been linked with the use of chemicals and pesticides in cotton farms.

For those who care about where their feminist t-shirts – and all clothing – comes from, choosing brands that are transparent while following high social, labor and environmental standards might be the way to go.

Female cotton pickers in Pakistan / Photo courtesy of Reuters

In 2016, fashion designer Henriette Ernst created a conscious fashion brand in support of gender equality. Ernst used over 20 years of international experience in design and branding and started ROUND + SQUARE, a brand that does much more than just beautiful fashion products, taking the term “feminist fashion” to another level.

ROUND + SQUARE t-shirts are made with 100% organic cotton with the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certification, which guarantees strict environmental and social criteria on all steps during the production process – from the field to the final product. Hazardous pesticides and toxic chemicals are banned, and no forced or child labor is allowed. 

Besides being responsibly produced, ROUND + SQUARE products carry messages that empower women and girls, promoting gender equality. Ernst said that it all started when she was walking her dog Mickey by the Hudson River, accompanied by Equality Now’s Global Executive Director, Yasmeen Hassan. The non-profit organization advocates for women and girls around the world. Ernst was inspired by the organization’s work and by the heartbreaking stories Hassan shared that summer day.

ROUND + SQUARE's Equal Power Tees/Photo: ROUND + SQUARE

“ROUND + SQUARE is the first fashion brand dedicated to furthering the rights of women. Henriette Ernst has an immense vision that the fashion industry (overwhelmingly patronized by women) should give back to the empowerment of women,” Hassan said.

The fashion brand’s famous #IWEARCAUSEICARE hashtag is not taken lightly. ROUND + SQUARE donates 30% of its sales profits to Equality Now.

“As a designer, I design everything with passion. And as an entrepreneur, I am driven by values,” Ernst said. 

“Only lawyers can change the laws to help women and girls achieve the same rights of men and boys,” she said. “I am not a lawyer, but I can make a difference and use my passion and the experience to design something meaningful. A value-driven approach to fashion can make a difference and make the world a better place for women and girls, one product at a time,” Ernst added.

This weekend, thousands of women will march once again in the anniversary of the Women’s March. As we speak out against gender inequality, it’s important to consider the rights and well-being of the females involved in making your feminist t-shirts.