Fair Labor and Fashion: The Modern Struggle for Equality in the Footwear Industry

Fair Labor and Fashion: The Modern Struggle for Equality in the Footwear Industry

Contributor: Harmony Richards

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, marks a pivotal moment in American history—the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas in 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. This day symbolizes freedom and the ongoing fight for equality. Similarly, the modern footwear industry faces its own battle for fair labor practices, gender equality, and ethical standards. Today, we will explore the parallels between the historical struggle for African American freedom and the contemporary fight for labor rights and equality in the fashion industry.

  1. Historical Context of Juneteenth

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the day when Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery. This came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. TWO AND A HALF YEARS. The delay in enforcement was due to the Civil War and the lack of Union presence in Texas until mid-1865. Many plantation owners willingly chose not to inform enslaved people that they were free, seeking to continue exploiting them for cheap labor. This deliberate withholding of information underscores a historical pattern where those in power reduce the rights of individuals to maintain economic advantage. For many African Americans, Juneteenth represents the resilience and enduring fight for civil rights and true freedom.

The history of labor rights in the United States is marked by significant struggles and milestones. The labor movement began in the late 19th century, advocating for better wages, working conditions, and hours.


 Key milestones include establishing the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which introduced minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor laws. The labor rights movement intersected with the civil rights movement, with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. advocating for both racial and economic justice.  More recently, I am proud to be part of the grass roots movement that pushed forward SB62, also known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, which went into effect in 2022. This crucial California law set the president for legislative changes happening federally as we speak (see FABRIC ACT).  It also ended the piece rate system, where California garment workers made an average of $5.85 an hour (and as low as  $2.68) and created a minimum wage standard.

 III. Fair Labor Practices in the Footwear Industry

The global footwear industry has long been criticized for its labor practices, often involving low wages, poor working conditions, and exploitation, especially in the global south. Major brands have faced scrutiny for their use of sweatshops and child labor. However, there has been progress through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and fair trade certifications aimed at improving labor conditions. Companies like Patagonia and TOMS have led the way by ensuring ethical sourcing and better labor practices. We of course, strive to push the boundaries as a small business and aim for complete transparency of our supply chain. Unlike the brands-who-shall-not-be-named that target surface level sustainability goals, also known as greenwashing, we take ethical labor seriously and include it in priortizing sustainability for people, planet, and profit. 

  1. Parallels Between Juneteenth and the Fight for Labor Rights

The themes of freedom and equality resonate deeply in both the historical context of Juneteenth and the modern struggle for labor rights. The emancipation from slavery echoes the fight against exploitative labor conditions in today’s fashion industry. Both movements rely heavily on activism and advocacy. Just as Juneteenth symbolizes a continuous journey toward equality, the fight for fair labor practices requires ongoing efforts and vigilance.

  1. Gender Equality in the Footwear Industry

Women play a crucial role in the footwear industry, particularly in production, yet they often face significant challenges, including gender-based wage gaps and poor working conditions. Promoting gender equality involves initiatives to support female workers and entrepreneurs, ensuring fair wages, and providing safe working environments. Brands like Alterre and Rothy’s are known for their commitment to gender equality and ethical labor practices, setting examples for the industry.

  1. Case Study: A Sustainable Women's Shoe Company

Our company is dedicated to promoting fair labor and gender equality. We ensure that our sourcing practices are ethical, providing fair wages and safe working conditions for all employees. Additionally, we support female workers and prioritize leadership roles for women within our organization. This commitment not only impacts our workforce but also sets a standard for other companies and educates consumers about the importance of ethical fashion.  There’s no greenwashing here, we’ve committed to expanding our sustainability into a full lifecycle assessment of each product, material, and supplier with the help of Positive Luxury.  After a year of deep diving behind the seams (pun intended) we were awarded the Butterfly Mark for our commitment to sustainability in 2021.   In addition to seeking gender equity across our supply chain, we also donate 5% of our profit to Restore NYC, a 501c(3) providing longterm rehabilition for survivors of sex trafficking.   Giving back to our local community and providing opportunities for women to have a renewed lease on life is something we deeply value. 


As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The historical struggle for freedom and equality commemorated on Juneteenth is mirrored in the modern fight for fair labor practices in the footwear industry. The journey toward true equality for African Americans and garment workers requires continuous effort and awareness. 

Supporting ethical brands and advocating for fair labor practices in fashion and footwear can drive one step forward for meaningful change in the industry. 

Further Reading and Resources

For those interested in learning more about Juneteenth, labor rights, and ethical fashion, consider the following resources:

- **Books**: "On Juneteenth" by Annette Gordon-Reed, "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views" by Harold Holzer.

- **Articles**: “The Long History of the Juneteenth Holiday” by Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The State of Fashion 2020” by Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company.

- **Documentaries**: "13th" directed by Ava DuVernay, "The True Cost" directed by Andrew Morgan.


  1. Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “The Long History of the Juneteenth Holiday.” PBS, 2013.
  2. Holzer, Harold. "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views." Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
  3. Gordon-Reed, Annette. "On Juneteenth." Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021.
  4. Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. "The State of Fashion 2020." 2019.
  5. DuVernay, Ava. "13th." Netflix, 2016.
  6. Morgan, Andrew. "The True Cost." Life Is My Movie Entertainment, 2015.

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