Slowing Down Fast Fashion: Lessons from Clara Lemlich

Collage by Judy Goldstein, using image of Clara Lemlich, circa 1910, and image of mass labor meeting at Cooper Union's Great Hall, circa 1909, both courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University.

I squint at my computer screen as the blue light reflects back at me. “Total: $19.50,” it reads. I scan the page: three t-shirts, one pair of pants, and a bathing suit, all for less than $20? Looking back, I thought I’d struck gold, but really, I’d just had my first encounter with the world of fast fashion.

Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon in the clothing industry, but it’s been spreading like wildfire. The fast fashion business cycle aims to recreate high-fashion designs by cheaply mass-producing styles and getting them to retail stores as fast as possible (thus, its name was born). The fashion industry is responsible for 20% of global wastewater, 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and uses more energy than the shipping and aviation industries put together. But perhaps more depressingly, the fast fashion industry has had devastating consequences for those who make these clothes, often in third-world countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, whose conditions are not so different from those who worked in American factories in the 20th century.

Clara Lemlich was one of many early labor rights activists who fought for workers’ rights in the garment industry. Like many garment workers today, Lemlich began working in a factory at a very young age, and never received a formal education. Her family had moved to the United States to escape Ukraine’s increasingly oppressive and anti-Semitic government. They settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a beacon for immigrants that quickly became known as “the world’s largest Jewish city” as Jews fled religious persecution around the world. With her father struggling to find a permanent job, young Clara became her family’s main breadwinner.

But in what was advertised as the “City of Dreams,” Lemlich, among thousands of other young immigrants, was working in conditions that she described as “unbearable.” According to Lemlich, not only did these factories’ deplorably dangerous conditions reduce workers “to the status of machines,” but the workers were overworked and underpaid, working upwards of 12 hours a day for an average wage of approximately $2 per day. Many workers also had to contribute their own supplies, including sewing machines, and were often fined for being late or making a mistake.

The US Department of Labor has passed over 180 federal laws regulating working conditions and pay since Clara Lemlich’s time. But through overconsumption of clothing, Americans have played (and paid) into the exploitation of fast fashion factory workers around the world. In countries like China, Bangladesh, and India, which lack the same kinds of regulations for factories, garment workers are living and working in conditions described as “slave labor.” In fact, some working conditions have even gotten worse since Lemlich’s time. Approximately 750 million people, including 170 million children, are employed by the fast fashion industry today, and less than 2% of them earn a livable wage. Many employees work up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. 21st-century factory workers across the world are still having to face 20th-century working conditions as we continue to ignore the issues rooted in the fast fashion movement.

Unionizing and striking is one of the most historically effective ways to push for meaningful reform. Clara Lemlich joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s (ILGWU) executive board and began organizing women to fight for workers’ rights. She spoke on picket lines, planned meetings, wrote opinion pieces, and organized strikes. Lemlich was fired from factory jobs due to her outspokenness, was assaulted by police officers, had her ribs broken, and was arrested seventeen times, but she didn’t let that stop her.

On November  22, 1909, a striker’s meeting was held at the Cooper Union. Male union officials and factory workers, one after another, addressed the crowd for hours about their terrible working conditions, but failed to offer up any viable solutions or reform. So Lemlich stepped in, and, in her native Yiddish tongue, spoke to the crowd of immigrant workers: “I am a working girl…one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now,” she said. The very next day, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 young women refused to work at their garment factory jobs. What became known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” remains the largest organized strike in United States history to date.

Lemlich’s commitment to mobilizing female workers, an already marginalized group, has had a lasting legacy on workers around the world. In January of 2019, 50,000 Bangladeshi women garment workers came together in a series of protests, strikes, and militant work stoppages. The women demanded higher wages, as they had not received a pay raise following an increase in the national minimum wage. Their dedication to their own fight caused the eventual closure of 50 garment factories. In a country with over one million factory workers, the women who participated in these strikes have set a new precedent for workers in developing countries..

Clara Lemlich, the women she led in striking, and the women who have come after her prove that strength truly comes in numbers and in unity. Meaningful change and reform is made when we band together and are there to support one another. I am lucky enough not to have to work in dangerous conditions to support myself or my family. However, I know that I still have a role to play in ending the abusive conditions endured by contemporary fast-fashion workers . It can be difficult to avoid fast fashion, especially since it’s a cheap and easy alternative to shopping sustainably. But, by expanding my personal shopping habits to thrift stores and secondhand shops, I am playing a small yet important role in putting an end to fast fashion.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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This is well written and informative. I did not know about Clara and her gallant fight. Thank you for bringing this to light. What’s unfortunate is that even supposed ‘quality clothing’, or what we deem as such, is often made in these deplorable conditions as well. Certain name brand charge more. It lines their pockets, but never the workers. What a conundrum to unravel.

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How to cite this page

Sorkin, Clara. "Slowing Down Fast Fashion: Lessons from Clara Lemlich." 27 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/slowing-down-fast-fashion-lessons-clara-lemlich>.