In honour of International Women’s Day 2021, we talk transparency, the rights of women in the fashion industry and female inspirations with activist, abolitionist and founding director of international human rights group Walk Free, Grace Forrest.

Describe what it means to be a woman in the fashion industry in 2021…
As a woman working in the field of international human rights, modern slavery intersects with the fashion industry far more often than it should. In fact, The Global Slavery Index ranks the fashion industry among the five most high-risk industries in the world.

Modern slavery and fashion supply chains disproportionately impact women. Conservatively we estimate one in every 130 women ON EARTH is living in modern slavery. This a hard fact to comprehend as we celebrate International Women’s Day.

Grab any garment in your wardrobe, and you can be pretty confident it was made by a woman. Flash marketing, the rise of fast fashion and endless collections by luxury brands, even the sustainability movement, disconnect us from the reality that the clothes we wear were made by real people with real lives. It’s an exception, rather than the rule, that brands disclose the working conditions under which their shiny final products are made.

We can’t call ourselves feminists if we do not value the lives and rights of the women behind the clothes we wear. Nothing highlights this irony more than shirts emblazoned with “GirlBoss” and “Girls Can”, while the women who made them don’t even have the right to a living wage or basic workplace protections.

As a woman who loves fashion, I am determined to ensure the narrative of this industry is radically re-imagined. The definition of sustainability, a word trending across the global fashion landscape, must be expanded to include information and policy frameworks to protect people at every level of the supply chain. You can be assured, that any brand which claims to “protect the planet” while exploiting people, will never do right by either.

I am so proud to work with some incredible Australian brands and designers who are swimming against the tide, to ensure that the journey of clothing is respectful to people and the planet from start to finish.

I love clothes, and the expression allows each and every one of us – at its core I believe sustainability is looking after what you already own, regardless of where that garment comes from. While we can’t buy our way into a more ethical world, there is such a vital role for the consumer to ask questions about the origins of the clothing we buy, before adding pieces (ideally made to last) where greatly loved or needed.

Related reading:

Fashion identified as one of five key industries implicated in modern slavery

Rebuilding Fashion from COVID

“Modern slavery and fashion supply chains disproportionately impact women”

What women are currently inspiring your world (and why)?

So many incredible women inspire my world, from near and far. First and foremost, I am inspired by my mother and my grandmothers, all incredible women, all who have and continue to break down barriers in their chosen fields be it as pilots, artists or early childhood specialists. They are all style icons to me, in their own way.

Within my space I am inspired every day by the women who I work with at Walk Free, as well as female leaders around the world fighting to tackle injustice – such as Grace Tame, Nimko Ali, Bernice King, Vanessa Nakate and Jacinda Ardern.

I’m inspired by women paving the way through and within the hard conversations about how this industry must transform. Some in the fashion industry include: Aja Barber (@AjaBarber), Orsola de Castro (Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution @Fash_Rev), Jeanne DeKroon (Founder of Zazi Vintage @jeannedekroon + @zazi.vintage) and Venetia LaManna (Co-founder of @rememberwhomadethem @VenetiaLamanna). As well as creators like Maggie Marilyn (@maggiemarilyn), Kit Willow (@KitX) and Ashton Cameron (of @MountainandMoon).

In your opinion, what makes the Australian women’s fashion industry so special or unique?
What makes us unique in my opinion is our individualism born of isolationism. We are a country of both unique privilege and challenge.

I don’t believe that any Australian wants to buy something that harmed another human being in the process. On the contrary, I think we strive to support local and Australian made where we can, but this isn’t the only way we can ensure we’re investing in our values when we’re buying new things. I believe our fashion industry could become world-leading in the ethical and sustainable landscape by moving to ensure that our values and principles of fairness are extended off our shores and into our global supply chains. It’s not ok that some Australian brands, selling dresses for hundreds of dollars under the guise of luxury goods, don’t even ensure a basic living wage for the people who make their clothes.

Transparency, coupled with accountability, is what will transform this industry. We have national legislative support for this through the Australian Modern Slavery Act, and an increasing level of consumer and media awareness to hold those at the top to account.

We vote for the kind of world we want to live in everyday with the way we spend our money. So where possible, why not support brands actively working to do the right things? From a purchase as small as your morning coffee (choose Fairtrade) to a larger investment for your wardrobe, put your money behind brands and groups that are working to make our world a fairer, safer place to live in for all people.

With more women and girls living in modern slavery than there are people living in Australia, there has never been a more urgent time to call for mass transparency and accountability in the fashion industry. From the women who make our clothes to the women who wear them, we are all connected. We progress together, or not at all.

Related reading:

The origins of International Women’s Day

Modern Slavery Act explained