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Can Brands Truly Be Feminist?

© Illustration by INJECTION - Mia Hatch

Do fashion retailers really care about feminism, or is it just a ploy to sell more products?

In recent years, I have been trying my best to be a conscious and ethical consumer. I buy second-hand clothes when I can, from charity shops or from reselling sites. I try to sell or donate my old belongings instead of chucking them away. I follow local businesses on Instagram and try to support them when I can. On top of all this, however, there will always be big brands and huge corporations who have a monopoly over what is advertised to us and over what we subconsciously consume.

With the rise in popularity of feminism, many of these big brands have started to use feminist, or ‘empowering’ marketing tactics in their advertising. But can brands truly be feminist? Or are they simply profiting from a movement that they don’t otherwise support?

Go into H&M or Forever 21, and you’re bound to find some form of ‘feminist’ or ‘girl power’ merchandise. There’s a bitter irony attached to the fact that these shirts were probably made by girls in sweatshops. Of course, this article is not meant as a critique of people who buy fast fashion. Instead, let this act as a callout for these brands who use feminism as a marketing tactic, when behind the scenes, the way they treat those who make their garments does not align with feminist principles.

There’s also the issue of brands selling feminist merchandise that only thin people can wear. Many high-street fashion retailers sell very limited plus-size clothing options. Urban Outfitters is a major culprit for this: many of their clothes claim to go up to ‘XL’, but their XL is really more like a UK size 12. This clearly promotes the idolisation of one body type over another, and causes many women to feel insecure about their own bodies, but then the same store will sell T-Shirts and pins to do with feminism.

It’s fairly common knowledge that these sorts of companies aren’t the most ethical. Most people are somewhat aware of how fast fashion operates and we usually take any ‘empowering’ marketing strategies that they roll out with a pinch of salt. How about, then, the brands that have a reputation for being ethical? Take The Body Shop, for example. They’re known for being a vegetarian, sustainable brand, and have a feminist manifesto on their site.

“We’re a feminist brand”, they state. “We’re committed to advocating self-love and body acceptance”. Empowerment and their brand appear to go hand in hand. Even though they’re a huge company, they promote self-love and have a reputation for being ethical. However, it is interesting to note that The Body Shop is owned by Natura, who also owns Avon. In 2019, Avon was in the spotlight after Jameela Jamil called out their anti-cellulite advertising campaign.

One of the adverts read ‘dimples are cute on your face (not on your thighs)’. It was advertising a lotion that was supposed to get rid of cellulite, with the implication that cellulite (or ‘thigh dimples’) is unappealing. Cellulite is completely normal but many beauty brands try and sell women ‘cures’ to this completely natural occurrence. It’s a thankless task, as you can’t cure a disease that doesn’t exist. To imply otherwise and to sell products by putting down women’s body image is anti-feminist. The beauty industry has many issues regarding feminism and body image, but for a company to have a ‘feminist policy’ for one store and an explicitly anti-feminist advert for another seems indicate that they are solely using the popularity of feminism as a marketing ploy.

How about smaller brands then? In recent years, more and more small, independent businesses have started popping up and a lot of these new companies are very open about the way their products are manufactured, and why they make the products that they do. Take Estrid for example. According to their site, Estrid is ‘a pink tax fighting, vegan, cruelty-free, steel razor for women’.

Take a look at their Instagram page, and you’ll see that a lot of their marketing centres around how shaving is a choice, and that women shouldn’t feel pressured to shave if they don’t want to. Their company opposes the ‘pink tax’ - that is, the tax that is applied to women's products (like women’s razors) but not the men’s equivalent. This in itself is a way for a brand to be feminist, removing a charge that until now was only applied to women. Estrid say that they heard of many women buying men’s razors for this reason, so wanted to make a razor marketed towards women that didn’t have this pink tax attached to it.

This is fair enough, and a step in the right direction. They’re bringing to attention some of the little issues that affect women day by day that many might not realise. However, it could still be argued that Estrid isn’t very feminist in that they’re profiting from a beauty standard that only affects women. They seem to firmly believe that women shouldn’t have to shave if they don’t want to, but if they do choose to shave it should be with a quality product.

Creating this product doesn’t exactly fight against the beauty standard and the stereotype that female body hair in unhygienic, even if they do promote feminist ideals in their marketing. They obviously wouldn’t want all women to stop shaving altogether, as then they wouldn’t have a business.

It is clear, however, that the creators of Estrid do want their product to be ethical. They’ve done a lot to raise awareness about the pink tax, and have offered women a cruelty-free, vegan, and aesthetically pleasing alternative to disposable men’s razors.

It’s a grey area. Ultimately, it’s probably safe to say that huge fast-fashion retailers who use sweatshops and have limited plus-size options cannot really be trusted to ever be truly feminist, but it gets more complicated with smaller businesses. With most smaller businesses, it’s a lot easier to track where their products are coming from and why the business started, so sometimes it’s clear when there are good intentions behind what they do. The first priority for any business, however, will always be profit, so perhaps it’s time for us to stop looking to brands and expecting them to impart to us some groundbreaking feminist wisdom and instead look elsewhere.


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