In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, many fashion brands expressed solidarity with the Black community, posting vague BLM-adjacent sentiments, blacked out squares and regurgitated hashtags on their social media platforms. Yet these are the same brands which have exploited BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of colour) while expecting the very same communities to buy their products. These empty displays of support are particularly deceptive in the sustainable fashion sector, which projects an image of harmony and equality when the story is in fact far more complex.
By now it is no secret that the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, is built on the oppression of Black and brown bodies. From damaging labour practices to lack of fair pay for garment workers – 80% of whom are women – via influencers building their brands on 'blackfishing', the fashion industry certainly doesn't have a clean record when it comes to race. So often do young Black designers have their work copied without compensation that it's become a grim running joke that they shouldn't share their creations online. When morals are low and profits are high, stealing skills, ideas and identities is par for the course in an industry that has continually shown itself to be a bad ally to people of colour.
For too long, the sustainable sector of the fashion industry has been getting away with exploitation under the guise of saving the world. Eco-conscious brands present ethereal visual identities, creating the illusion that their garments are made by fair hands. Yet the LA-based sustainable brand Reformation recently came under fire when a former employee accused the brand of a racist corporate culture. Everlane, meanwhile, a company which prides itself on its ethically sourced materials and transparent pricing, has been exposed as perpetuating a racist culture, with employees of colour being paid less than their white counterparts and claiming to have their ideas easily dismissed.
The failures of these brands shouldn't come as a surprise. Sustainable designer Tara Efobi shared her experience as a Black woman navigating ethical fashion spaces, telling me: "From my time studying and working in fashion, without a doubt the largest group represented in this industry is upper middle-class to upper-class white cisgender women." Rosette Ale, founder of Revival London, a sustainable fashion reconstruction brand, echoed this sentiment: "I was never supported in the roles I worked in and had to work much harder than my white counterparts who would frequently get away with silly mistakes whereas I’d be scolded." When there is so little representation in these workplaces – and a lack of support for those who do make it there – diverse voices are bound to be ignored or silenced, making the predominant perspective in fashion a white one. And so the cycle continues.
The white saviour trope is practically a parody in environmentalism. In suggesting that white people can fix the problems of struggling people of colour, often without a great understanding of the issues – a real concern in environmentalist academia – we’re simultaneously valuing objectivity while ignoring the lived experiences of BIPOC. We have continually seen that people of colour are disproportionately affected by climate change, whether it's through their heightened experience of natural disasters, being exposed to unsafe drinking water or even when the media erases them (like the time various outlets cropped Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate out of a picture with other young, white activists including Greta Thunberg). We can no longer pretend that environmentalism exists in a post-racial world.
In fact, sustainable fashion has always been defined by its relationship to whiteness. Brands like Reformation and Everlane market themselves somewhat exclusively to white audiences. Perhaps they believe that people of colour can't afford their products or – more pessimistically – perhaps they do not want Blackness associated with their carefully crafted branding. In June, a former Reformation employee claimed that, when shown a photograph of a Black model for casting, the brand's founder Yael Aflalo said: "We’re not ready for that yet." (Aflalo has since stepped down from the company.) Since the beginning of the year, Reformation has posted 174 photos on its Instagram feed, 26 of which feature Black models. In the six posts since its BLM #blackout post, meanwhile, it has featured three Black models. This begs the question: if it were that simple, why were they not doing it all along?
Dayna Atkinson, the owner of Fyre Vintage, believes there is a dichotomy between the diversity of these brands' consumers and who they decide to highlight on their feeds. She says that ethical brands which "market themselves to wealthy white women may only truly care about the white customer. They’ll take our money but they won’t repost us or use Black models." The sustainable fashion industry has cultivated an aspirational but rigid image centred around slender white women in flowing, delicate dresses. Now it is struggling to come to terms with the nuances of the real world.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are a powerful and often underestimated force in the UK economy, said to be worth £300 billion in spending power. Yet they do not see themselves in marketing and advertising, implying that companies do not think they are worth it. This failure of representation – and the damage it may be doing to the economy – is beginning to be noticed. Monique Bircham, designer and founder of Hotmamas Clothing, states: "Many fashion brands have believed that many people of colour, especially Black people, do not have the disposable income and investing in them is not marketable." Ale agrees: "Black people have so much economic power in this country and we sometimes don’t even realise it ourselves."
There is now a concerted effort to highlight Black-owned businesses in the UK with initiatives such as Black Pound Day. In the US, Aurora James, the founder of NYC-based footwear label Brother Vellies, has created the Fifteen Percent Pledge which asks retailers to devote 15% of their offering to Black-owned businesses in order to reflect the percentage of Black communities across America. Let's hope commitments like these are taken up by brands and retailers across the world.
To see real change within sustainable fashion, though, reform needs to come from the top, from "the people who make the decisions and the recruitment policies of the brand," as Bircham suggests. Atkinson agrees and says that the way forward essentially means "hiring more Black talent at fashion brands." Without real structural change, actions like posting a few more pictures of Black models on your social media feed simply read as performative. By hiring inclusion officers, for instance, companies can become more representative as well as creating better working environments to attract and retain diverse talent. Steps are slowly being made: H&M, Gucci and Prada have all hired diversity officers after much-publicised racial missteps. H&M's new global leader for diversity and inclusiveness, Annie Wu, has set a number of goals for improvement, telling Refinery29 last year: "By 2025, 100% of our employees will feel that they have the same opportunity as the person sitting next to them."
Many consumers are willing to change their habits for the sake of the planet yet the sustainable fashion industry has continually proved itself to be a hostile place for non-white people. But there is hope. Leaders like Brittany Sierra, founder of The Sustainable Fashion Forum, Aja Barber, Mikaela Loach, Leah Thomas and Dominique Drakeford of MelaninASS are all pushing for change and finally being heard. Brands like Sika Designs, We Are Kin and Kiwi and Yam are making a difference, too. Like everything in life, if you care about something, you should be able to critique it and demand better. So to the sustainable fashion industry: we demand better.