As one of many ethical fashion enthusiasts out there, I often found myself frustrated at the lack of guidance and information on whether a brand aligns with my values or not. I’ve come across many a rating of notorious fast fashion brands, deemed somehow “decent” in their efforts to implement an ethical and sustainable supply chain — brands I knew shouldn’t have made the list of “good actors,” like H&M, whose sustainability efforts have been connotative of greenwashing. I was fed up, with what I’m sure most of the community of conscious consumers are familiar with — a lack of transparency into what exactly makes a brand ethical and sustainable. So I, like many others, was delighted when Remake released a comprehensive 2020 Transparency Report, one that scored brands through a breakdown of five categories, including diversity in fashion.
Among the most recent addition to these 5 pillars of sustainability and ethicality in Remake’s criteria is “diversity and inclusion” criteria — which takes into consideration the following three questions:
1) Who comprises the company’s C-suite and senior management? Is the C-suite composition indicative of a company that is maximizing its ability to be an ethical and sustainable brand? Is the senior management of the company reflective of the country’s demographics?
2) To what extent does the company’s recruitment strategy/process encourage diverse applicants?
3) Does the company culture support a multitude of perspectives, and (outlaw) any instance of discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, etc.?
So how did the Diversity and Inclusion section affect the overall scores of brands?
Interestingly enough, when factoring “Diversity and Inclusion” into the way in which brands can maximize their ethical/sustainable practices, overall brand ratings TANKED! Companies that had secured the Remake Seal of Approval for their transparency lost that stamp as soon as they were evaluated for their diversity and inclusion efforts. A remarkable number of these brands either did not have enough representation in senior management or did not institute any diversity initiatives within the company.
Perhaps among these sustainable brands that has recently received the most heat regarding its diversity and inclusion practices is Reformation. In June of 2020, Reformation came under intense media scrutiny after an ex-employee leaked the extent to which microaggressions had affected the work environment and mobility within the company. Leslieann Elle Santiago accused the brand of creating a culture where making racially degrading comments came at no cost. In fact, white workers were often promoted in spite of their prior behavior. And for a brand that has touted such progressive values, the question was asked: is blatant disregard, and indeed disrespect, for diversity consistent with being an ethical and sustainable brand?
Fortunately, it seems as though Reformation is taking a hard look at its company culture and working to drive progress. Reformation’s Q3 Sustainability Report offers some encouragement as to how the brand is taking seriously the allegations against it and finding ways to address these problems. While many of the specific questions regarding diversity and inclusion on Remake’s score report of Reformation are still yet to be answered, we are hopeful that this leader in sustainable fashion will continue to implement changes and share specific, actionable changes that are being made within its workforce to fight racism and inequity.
While Reformation may have seen the most press surrounding lack of diversity and inclusion this past summer, they certainly aren’t the only brand that needs to reassess its brand platform and ability to drive equitable actions. Remake’s Transparency Report outlines a number of brands whose rating dropped by up to 8 points after accounting for D&I. In fact, Remake found that the majority of “sustainable brands” we assessed for this report earned little to no points for diversity and inclusion.
How Diversity Plays a Role in Brand Betterment
Obviously, there is a social initiative behind the inclusion of D&I transparency. People of color want to feel included in an industry that they participate in and contribute to. That is completely understandable. But it’s also oversimplified. Diversity plays a vital and concrete role in increasing ethical and sustainable practices.
First: A company’s values are, to a great extent, dictated by the people that work for the company. Diversity in demographics brings along with it a diversity in perspective. And in an industry that runs on the backs of Black and brown women, having a team that is in touch with this community is an essential part of ensuring that ethical practices are not just paid lip service, but actually offer long-term viability.
Several studies, while not showing a clear link between diversity and performance, have questioned the details of the impact of a diverse workforce and “improved decision-making processes by increasing creativity and innovation.” According to an article published in the Human Resource Management Review, “Recognizing the benefits of diversity: When and how does diversity increase group performance?,” an increase in diversity can highlight internal prejudice, by forcing employees to confront and deconstruct their own beliefs. While diversity might increase short term conflict within a company, that conflict leads to open communication within the company, leading to lasting, systemic change. The article emphasizes that the increase in short term conflicts resulting from diversity might actually be massively beneficial to the overall structure of a company.
The two main types of beneficial conflict the article outlines are value conflict and task conflict. Essentially, value conflict describes a disagreement about what kind of task should be prioritized while task conflict is more of a general disagreement about how the task should be done.
As the aforementioned article goes on to highlight: “When cultural diversity is salient, value conflicts are more likely to occur.” These value conflicts take the form of microaggressions, which are a serious problem for employees who identify as non-white ethnic identities. When microaggressions are called out, the result is a streamlined and more equitable communication channel, contributing to the overall health and sustainability of the company.
Increasing short term task and value conflict yields incredibly positive results for expanding the perspectives through which brands approach ethical and sustainability practices. This is largely because, at the crux of cultural and racial diversity is a diversity in perspective,“suggesting that when people bring their different expertise together, the number of conflicts regarding methods of understanding or executing a task may increase but this can ultimately improve group performance.”
The addition of task conflict is essential within the fashion industry because it provides sustainable brands a more complete lens on how to maximize ethical and sustainable goals through open communication and diversity of perspective.
Supporting diversity through initiatives that develop management training and communication is a crucial step in impacting long term company culture in the way of inclusion. Aya Shaban of Zaved University in Abu Dhabi proposes in her journal article “Managing and Leading a Diverse Workforce: One of the Main Challenges in Management,” the application of the leader-member exchange theory (LMX) stating: “in diverse teams, members are not similar, so selecting only one single leadership style to lead the team may not be effective…The LMX theory is concerned with…the relationship between the leader and each subordinate independently rather than the relationship between the leader and the whole team.” What this means is that rather than be influenced by a “majority-rules” approach, the team derives its values through a prioritization of individual contributions — thus stimulating an equal exchange in ideas.
Increasing diversity within companies allows the fashion industry these value and task conflicts in order to construct a more equitable space — one that represents rather than discriminates. But, currently, this is not the case. The lack of diversity in the fashion industry is exacerbating unethical transgressions committed by big money brands. Perhaps the most poignant of these issues are those of representation and inclusion.
Fashion’s Lack of Ethics
Lack of Diversity & Inclusion comes at a concrete COST to ethical practice. Most notably, there has been a culture of ripping off black designers without credit whenever convenient in street style trend cycles. In a post from August 13, the fashion watchdog group, Diet Prada called out Victoria Secret for plagiarizing designs from a black owned lingerie brand, Edge O’ Beyond. Adding to VS, and PINK’s long list of ethical issues is now co-opting black owned brands, as Diet Prada writes:“‘Seeing someone as big as Victoria’s Secret, during the era of BLM, preying on an independent black business and then using predominantly brown and black prison labour to copy our products was a HUGE slap in the face’ said Edge O’ Beyond founder Naomi De Haan.”
And VS isn’t the only brand to do so. Among other brands that Diet Prada called out was Missguided. Accusing missguided of ripping off black designers, Diet Prada writes: “Not sure when @missguided changed their tag line to “COMMITTED TO EMPOWERING ALL ⚡️” but it seems safe to say they’re not there yet, and knocking off designers of color was never the way to get there. You’d think they could have at least changed the color or the pose of this @tlzlfemme by @aazhia dress…Not surprised they went for it, though. TLZ L’Femme has some pretty major celebrity fans— Chloe x Halle as well as Kylie and Stormi have sported custom matching outfits from the line… and Cardi was wearing one of their dresses in her viral coronavirus video.”
It’s clear how obviously this violates social ethics. In such a creative industry, of course there will be some level of overlap and inspiration, but when big brands copy cut-for-cut the exact same design as smaller, generally POC designer’s work without giving them credit or compensation, it becomes an intellectual property issue.
And in an industry that has historically discriminated against any designs that haven’t been eurocentric or western inspired, profiting off of minority designs does not sit well. In fact, it violates ethical sourcing, labour, and fair trade pillars.
The fashion industry systematically does not give POC designers the same opportunities as their white counterparts, making the lack of diversity even more concerning. Speaking to POC designers, the New York Times article, “Fashion’s Racial Divide,” highlights this gap: “‘Playing by the rules of what a designer should be works against you as a black designer,’ said Mr. Oliver, who was born in Minnesota, lived in the Caribbean with his grandmother as a child, and moved to Brooklyn when he was 10. Though he enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology, he left after a year to start Hood by Air, D.J.-ing in the evening to support himself. ‘There’s always a white face who plays the game better than you,’ he said. ‘You have to make your own rules.’”
Fast fashion brands like VS and Missguided have been on Remake’s radar for a while. So it came as no surprise, when despite clearly committing violations of ethicality, the company hides behind positing black squares and hiring POC models.
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But what’s surprising is that it’s not just fast fashion brands, the known transgressors of the fashion industry, who are falling flat when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It’s also brands that many think of as prime examples of ethical and sustainable brands. These are brands that have historically had Remake’s Seal of Approval. And, when re-evaluating in terms of ranking diversity, lost that stamp.
Performative Action vs. Actionable Change
As Remake reported earlier in September, the number of brands posting black squares on Instagram in support of BLM saw a rapid rise in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder — but few of these brands had done very little to act on their support beyond just the optics. We wrote: “A few months have passed since George Floyd’s death, and we haven’t yet observed many of the black squares on social media and commitments to ‘listen & learn’ turning into any tangible change in the working lives of black people. In fact, over the past few months, there have been few lasting commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fashion industry as a whole. Further, we have seen many of the same brands that professed anti-racist attitudes called out for their actively racist practices against black employees.”
In recent years, brands have been increasing short term diversity by signing contracts with POC models. And while this sort of representation is indeed necessary in order to boost “inclusivity” in an industry that has for so long been white-oriented, it is not enough. Diversity also needs to be reflected in brand’s senior management, not just the market they are catering to.
KOTN, a brand that has been scoring relatively well in terms of supply chain sustainability, has been hiring POC models to showcase this season’s products. But when Remake analyzed the brand’s D&I efforts, its rating dropped drastically, underscoring that short term diversity hires to increase optics of progressive attitudes is not reflective of actual long term improvement in a brand. KOTN shared the following regarding its diversity and inclusion efforts: “Over the past couple of months our entire head office team has undergone diversity, inclusion and unbiased training with a third party group. This training is ongoing, as it requires group and individual components and work, and will continue to ensure we’re all staying accountable moving forward. We’ve set new benchmarks amongst each team, to ensure we’re both growing and fostering more internal diversity and inclusion, but also working with more BIPOC external partners, both behind the scenes and in-front of the lens, like our recent collaboration with Sunday School, which was created entirely by a Black team. Aligning with the school year starting, we also created a charitable item giving back to @theconsciouskid, supporting diversity education in classrooms.”
However, the brand still scored a grant total of zero points in Remake’s diversity and inclusion category, as our Transparency Manager shared that “training is the bare minimum in this area and they have not disclosed their benchmarks.” Additionally there have been no public reports surrounding diversity initiatives within the company, or any sort of public record evidencing that the “company hires women and POC above junior and administration positions.”
What Remake has found in our analysis has been a remarkable amount of sustainable fashion brands who are committed to environmentally friendly practices, but have failed to extend their progressive goals into company culture and ethical fashion. Companies that market sustainability and deliver on those goals through their sourcing and production models still benefit from the “conscious consumer” base, without truly committing to a progressive platform. Being sustainable does not necessarily mean the brand is also ethical — a loophole that many companies, big and small, are taking advantage of.
Why Diversity in Fashion so crucial to advocacy
Diversity is at the heart of progressive activism. By increasing diversity, a company will ensure that it is addressing these issues that have perpetuated an unethical environment within the fashion industry. Increasing diversity within company culture increases long-term, actual activism. And so calculating a brand’s D&I score allows for us, as consumers to filter out which brand’s ethical and sustainable platforms are purely a PR stunt, and which brands actually have a long term intent to make sure their supply chain is fully ethical and sustainable.
Looking at environmental sustainability and ethical labour standards is only the first step. We have to make sure that the company’s values are being enacted by a group of people who share those values, and will ensure that the company continues to grow into those values. Emphasizing diversity and diverse makeup of a company is a promising way of assessing whether a brands goals if sustainability and ethical fashion are systemic and long term.
This is the intent behind Remake’s Transparency Report.
This decade has been marked with instances of racial discrimination and violence across the United States, as well as internationally, highlighting the ways in which racial inequality persists and shapes every aspect of society. When evaluating a brand as ethical or sustainable, Remake feels that it is essential to score brands within this context and to understand what the company values and whether that is reflected in the company culture and work environment.
The decision to include “Diversity and Inclusion” as one the core pillars of sustainability came out of a moment of deep reckoning for the fashion industry, as well as its critics. Remake’s Transparency Manager shared:
“When brands look at their supply chains, they need to be able to account for how their business practices impact workers at every stage. For sustainability to be effective, it needs to be fully inclusive of social justice. For businesses, this means hiring black people, paying them fairly, and giving them the opportunities they deserve beyond junior and support positions.”
Including Diversity & Inclusion in brand evaluations is the first step in making sure that the labels we love, love us as well.
So what’s next for diversity in fashion? How can brands actually increase their inclusion and racial equity measures, and so maximize ethicality? The immediate answer would be to increase diversity in productive recruitment and hiring practices. Additionally, ensuring the pipeline within the company emphasizes diverse growth in opportunity and diversity in upward mobility is essential in contributing to overall goals of sustainable growth.