By Ali Murphy
‘Don’t you see you are killing us over here’
I’ve been thinking a lot about water recently. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about water as a feminist tool. Reading Jacqueline Rose’s astounding essay/collection Mothers and Jessie Greengrass’ phenomenal first novel Sight, the coalition of womanhood and wateriness remains remarkably pertinent in the present day. As opposed to avoiding or attempting to erase the all too familiar conflation of womanhood with a leakiness that is synonymous with insufficiency, many contemporary women writers are instead seeking to reclaim the coalition of water and womanhood; I had joined their ranks.
If ‘robust’ is a buzz word in capitalist conversation that proves only to benefit patriarchal power, then the challenge provided by water, a refusal perhaps, appears to be a welcome contestation to a system of preferences that serve a male organised agenda. Reclaiming the symptoms synonymous with wateriness does indeed afford positive outcomes for a feminist agenda and yet, at the centre of my previous writing on the analogy was the capacity of the tide to turn.
Beyond our control, water moves: the force is precarious. Water has a tendency to crash in on itself, to crash in on our beliefs and even to wreak havoc. My own sentiment hit too close to home when earlier this week I watched BBC journalist Stacey Dooley’s documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets. In the documentary, Dooley details the catastrophic damage that the British ‘fast fashion industry’ has wreaked upon developing countries. Most harrowing was the unfathomable amount of damage that the fast fashion industry has inflicted upon the rivers and seas of the middle and far east. The documentary depicted mothers with no clean water to bathe, clothe, or even feed their children. Featured were children with avoidable skin conditions, agonising and inflamed. Perhaps my vision for the feminist use of water was a utopian fantasy. The documentary opened my eyes to the systematic violation that I am surrounded by everyday, a violation I am even part of in the necessary act of going to work.
Water […] has the power to divide, to do harm, fast fashion uses water as a dangerous political weapon…
The documentary served as a reminder of one of the most central aspects of living a feminist life; to remain vigilant, aware, of the struggles that you yourself do not experience. Being fortunate enough not to experience a feminist struggle caused by Western exploitation by no means affords any white, western feminist worth her salt the right to ignore or even forget the struggles of other women, women far away, and women who’s experience of gender based violence manifests differently to her own. Feminism, by definition requires that we remain vigilant. Without vigilance the force with which we reckon has the power to turn in on itself. Water is an intersectional issue. Intersectional because as Kimberlé Crenshaw made plain in 1989, ‘women experience oppression in varying configurations and varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society’. When buying a £10 dress on ASOS or Missguided how many of us truly acknowledge the real cost of fast fashion? Undoubtedly, many of the women who consume fast fashion do so because of low income and unfair wage distribution from within the UK. As a consequence women in the middle and far east are left without access to sanitation. Water is an intersectional issue, its continued misuse is a result of impoverished consumers, the consequences inflicted on women in countries such as Bangladesh and China are unimaginable. And still, the rich, corporate industry giants get richer and richer whilst safe, natural resources become increasingly inaccessible.
I work in a high-end fashion retailer on arguably the busiest shopping street in the world, Regent Street. Daily I am surrounded by fabric, thousands of items of clothing, some of which will be bought and worn religiously. Most items will be bought, worn once, forgotten about. A significant amount will not be sold, but destroyed. On average, we receive four or five new clothing lines a day: multiply that by multiple amounts of every size and consider the fact that this is one store in one corner of Regent Street; the implications are terrifying. Each item of clothing bought and sold in a pocket of London has unimaginable implications that stem from the unethical exploitation of a communal, universally required resource: water. The documentary focused heavily on the ecological implications of water mis-use; a current hot topic in the weeks following the open letter produced by six world-leading scientists that forecast that we have just three years to halt and prevent climate change. Nevertheless, I agree with journalist and The High Low presenter Dolly Alderton that the documentary lacked a sustained interrogation of the socio-cultural implications of systematic resource abuse.
Using the same resource, low income consumers are systematically abused – albeit to a lesser degree – by the fast fashion industry.
If the viewing public are confronted with the narratives of others on whom they (perhaps unknowingly, or unthinkingly) inflict illness and in short violence, surely the human consequence of fast fashion would be enough to incite a change in our consumerist behaviour. There is, undoubtedly, a tremendous moral obligation to pursue this change. One that falls very much within a contemporary feminist agenda. Resource misuse is not the only reason the UK fast fashion industry has faced criticism in recent weeks. Arcadia CEO Philip Green, has faced justifiably extensive criticism in recent weeks following the removal of the Feminist’s Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies) pop-up in partnership with Penguin UK which was due to be unveiled in TOPSHOP, Oxford Street, the UK’s largest branch of the retail chain. The unethical actions of fast fashion’s fattest cat are under increasing amounts of scrutiny. The media outcry at Green’s decision highlights the evident hypocrisy of Green’s agenda from within a brand that supposedly promotes the freedom of self-expression in young women and girls. This particular model of faux-feminism is a thinly veiled capitalist ploy. Clearly, it is not the consumer that reaps the rewards of a discount dress. It is estimated that over 70% of the rivers and lakes in China are polluted with contaminated water as a result of the textiles industry. Greater interest in the international implications of fast fashion, particularly the implications of fast fashion on those we label ‘other’ needs our conscious attention. It requires our work. This is why I depict fast fashion’s systematic abuse of water as a feminist issue.
‘Don’t you see you are killing us over here’ despairs a Bangladeshi journalist when interviewed regarding the water crisis. ‘We are committing hydrocide’ declares Sunita Narain. Whilst a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘self’ and ‘other’ is rarely ever useful. Here, the distinction is necessary in order to make plain that the continued abuse of natural resources by the west in the middle and far east is nothing other than a reinforcement of the horrors of colonialism. Not only this, but as Dooley notes, Western countries are flagrantly disregarding laws within the countries they abuse. This hydrocide is illegal, it occupies and misuses the resources of others without right and seemingly without regard.
When buying a £10 dress on ASOS or Missguided how many of us truly acknowledge the real cost of fast fashion?
Water is a universally required resource. We are all united by water, it flows between the lands that we occupy, it shifts, moves, nourishes and sustains. Water also has the power to divide, to do harm, fast fashion uses water as a dangerous political weapon hidden beneath a masquerade of naïve frivolity on the part of the consumer. ‘Without this connection [to water]’ states one expert interviewed by Dooley, ‘our planet is gone. Because water is our life, water is our future’. If water is a weapon used to cling to a colonialist history, can we turn the tide to enable a future sustained by a shared, unifying resource. Are we too late? Water retains the potential to change its shape, to migrate, to enact and engage its force uncontrollably. Water is precarious. In its metaphorical existence, water is a feminist tool. But metaphorical tools must be part of our activist arsenal. Water connects us to those others, those mothers that cannot feed or clothe their children. Those children who grow up to experience the same horrific, avoidable diseases at the hands of the West’s violation of basic, universally necessary resources. Water, whether we like it or not, binds us to those that we, as western women, systematically abuse. Using the same resource, low income consumers are systematically abused – albeit to a lesser degree – by the fast fashion industry.
Low cost clothing carries a heavy price. Water flows. How we use this vital resource, how we utilise its force is a feminist issue. What we as western women consume in the clothing industry robs women in less economically developed countries of the ability to access the most necessary of resources. It is vital that water be consumed, to consume sustainably, in a feminist manner is down to us. Water is a dangerous force, one which we have used as a weapon. And yet, water retains the capacity to change its form, to travel in new directions. So make do and mend, remember the voyage of the garment you are wearing. And above all, make your feminist tools part of your activist arsenal.
About the Author:
Ali holds a BA from Queen Mary University of London, and recently obtained a MA with Distinction from Goldsmiths, U. of London. You can find more of their writing at The Radical Art Review.
Image credits: Boats moored on water