Why We Need To Dismantle Systemic Racism In Sustainable Fashion

Sareta Puri takes on the issue of whether the sustainable fashion industry does enough to provide equal opportunity and representation for all.

The first thing I think of when I hear the words sustainable fashion are slim, smiling, white women with long blonde hair flowing behind them whilst standing on some rocks.

It’s the classic ethical fashion shoot image, after all.

This simple image is an instant gaze into an industry that is built on some very specific ethics – to use sustainable materials, to clean the oceans, to not use cheap labour – but what does that mean in terms of equality, which is fundamentally the most basic ethical practice of all?

Equality must be explored in terms of pay, education and rights, as well as visibility and crucially, anti-oppressive practices.

Whilst high fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton were recently called out for their negative response to the Black Lives Matter movement, you just need to take a deeper look to realise that sustainable and ethical fashion has, in many cases, just as much work to do.

The campaigns of many brands in ethical fashion demonstrate a shocking lack of diversity.

If that is what is being portrayed to the outside world, it is likely that it is representative of deeply rooted, yet typically unintentional, systemic racism.

Sustainable brands were also called out including Everlane and Reformation for internal racism including anti-Black behaviour.

At the same time, sustainable brands that historically used fewer people of colour were quick to diversify their feeds and update their websites.

“It is not that people of colour are not into sustainable fashion, but the structures on which the industry is built upon amplifies white voices and white faces”

It’s not just brands

Search pretty much every listicle of ‘top sustainable fashion influencers to follow’ and you will have a rather cringeworthy scroll past a sea of predominantly white faces.

The non-white faces there have certainly seen a recent surge in followers as people aim to diversify their feeds (that is clearly not enough, but more on that later).

But even where brands have historically used diverse models in their campaigns, how does this reflect what is going on behind the scenes?

How many sustainable fashion brands are founded by people of colour, or have diversity across their leadership and management structures?

Do they historically and consistently work with paid Black and other POC models and influencers?

How do they treat the numerous yet unseen people of colour that operate across the business in production?

And what about whether or not their lines feature any cultural appropriation?

It is all of these factors that must be considered when we explore what is meant by systematic racism in the ethical fashion industry.

Strucural inequality

When checking the credentials of sustainable fashion choices you can use sites like Compare Ethics which has verified credentials of over 50 brands.

Brilliant if you’re looking for clothes that are organic, carbon neutral or for brands with women empowerment programmes or a commitment against modern slavery. These are all very important factors, however exploring the systematic racism that many fashion brands – sustainable and non-sustainable – are built on is more difficult to do.

It is not that people of colour are not into sustainable fashion, but the structures on which the industry is built upon amplifies white voices and white faces.

Quitting your 9-5 – or never needing to have one in the first place – and starting that bougie ethical brand that you always dreamt of is a very middle class action often only achievable through financial security.

This is where the relationship between race and class in the UK must be recognised.

Whilst some, largely second and third generation, ethnic minorities have moved into middle class-deemed professions, the upper echelons are still dominated by white people in the UK.

Plus consider that 63% of Black people don’t have savings, compared to 33% of white people, makes launching a business that bit more difficult.

If the humans where you manufacture don’t have clean drinking water, then it doesn’t matter if you’re using less water in your manufacturing

Management structures

That takes us on the leadership and management structures.

Even in white-founded or owned businesses, are people of colour, specifically Black people, in senior roles?

If not, this can be seen as a reflection of the systematic racism and in-built oppression that keeps the status quo.

However, brands shouldn’t reactively set up a diversity board or appoint a Black person to a senior role without it being meaningful and part of a wider cultural change.

A more meaningful approach is to ask whether people of colour apply for jobs?

If not, why not – is it the outward view of the business not appealing to them. If they don’t see other people of colour represented, then probably not.

Do your recruitment channels reach a wide range of people as they might also not know of the opportunities.

And in terms of diversity boards, they do have a place but everyone in the organisations needs to be an active participant in these discussions.

Human rights and representation

Sustainable fashion has typically focused on creating products that are sustainable for the planet, often based on tech and innovation or circularity of materials, and sometimes there is less regard for the people in production.

Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes movement was created to provide transparency and fairness across the whole of the fashion industry including for the workers, the majority being women of colour across the Global South, who often lack fair pay, education and adequate sanitation.

As sustainable fashion advocate Aja Barber said “If the humans where you manufacture don’t have clean drinking water, then it doesn’t matter if you’re using less water in your manufacturing.”

The women that make the majority of clothing are not reflected in campaigns to promote those brands.

A quick scroll through sustainable fashion brands such as BAM, Free People and Patagonia are a clear indication that people of colour are not typically visible.

In 2016 model Ashley B. Chew stepped out during New York Fashion Week with a self-painted Black Models Matter bag shining a light on inequalities on the runways and behind the scenes from designers to makeup artists to production crews.

And where models of colour are not used in campaigns some brands are still trying to appeal to diverse markets.

Lithuanian sustainable linen brand Son de Flor dropped the ball on a 2019 campaign which used Japanese hashtags to appeal to the Japanese market but without any representation of East Asians, or really any people of colour, in their marketing.

Not representing people of colour in a brand’s marketing can be taken as a clear indication that this brand is not for them.

And we can’t talk about systematic racism without touching on cultural appropriation which happens even in woke ethical fashion.

KLEED Komonos is a brand that promotes themself as conscious about respecting the communities they work in, yet they profit from a culturally appropriated garment that is primarily modelled by white women on their website.

In 2018, one of the queens of ethical fashion, Stella McCartney, controversially used Ankara prints in her catwalk designs without crediting its African roots, whilst also only having only one Black model in the show. Such prints and designs that relate to a specific culture can be used in fashion but only where the roots are recognised and honoured.

“White influencers and consumers should question the brands they work with or buy from about their diversity and anti-racism practices”

What can brands and consumers do to tackle systemic racism in the conscious fashion industry?

They can learn from where there has already been progress.

Helsinki Fashion Week was the first fully sustainable fashion show in the world and stated that they are committed to racial diversity, as part of their approach to “concretely challenge the status quo”.

White influencers and consumers should question the brands they work with or buy from about their diversity and anti-racism practices. This needs to include everything discussed here, not just checking whether a couple of POC influencers are on the campaign as a diversity tickbox. When this happens people are being tokenised and used as commodities.

White-owned businesses can take positive action to address issues within their businesses.

Lucy&Yak speak out about social issues and have a historically diverse range of models. However, when you turn the gaze inward you find that 84% of their UK employees are white with 0% being Black. They have recognised this as one of the issues and put together a clear action plan to combat anti-racism including internal education, donations, working on diversifying their recruitment drives and collaborating with more POC creatives.

Girlfriend Collective has long championed diversity and has created an ever-evolving page to update consumers on what actions they’re taking around anti-racism work including a list of Black-owned brands to support. Trove is a Canadian brand whose white co-founder Kara believes that by amplifying women of colour across their brand will “set a standard for what I expect of all other business owners – particularly white, female business owners.”

What pebble is doing

For full transparentcy, as a platform, pebble also has work to do.

In pebble’s A-Z of Ethical Fashion Brands published in 2019, we only featured one brand founded by a person of colour. Zola Eve – a sustainable activewear brand by designer Ncheta Dasilva who has infused her West African heritage and British nationality into bold and beautiful designs which are showcased by a range of body positive models.

“pebble is working hard on this issue. We are focusing on two ways we can help address the lack of diversity. Firstly, we are proactively commissioning from Black and POC journalists.

Secondly, we are challening ethical brands in terms of their marketing images to make sure our images across pebble are diverse, inclusive and representative of our society. We are pushing back when we’re sent non-diverse marketing images,” explains pebble editor, Georgina Wilson-Powell.

The industry is only going to get better if all brands take action, therefore consumers, influencers and business owners all have work to do to ensure this action is delivered.

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Sareta Puri is a Scottish-Indian writer, chef and consultant who works on projects to create positive and lasting change that will nurture the planet. She writes about sustainability, ethical lifestyle, veganism, culture and identity. Follow her at @saretapuri.

This feature was funded by Patreons. pebble’s Patrons directly support the commissioning of new journalism on topics they care about.

Join them and support us on Patreon and get access to a range of exclusive benefits. We commission a feature a month at the moment from writers with a unique insight into sustainable issues.