Sustainable Fashion’s Race Problem

This May, fashion leaders gathered for the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit –hailed as the Davos of our industry- to address the crucial environmental, social, and ethical problems plaguing the fashion industry. In advance, event organizers Global Fashion Agenda partnered with Boston Consulting Group to release the 2nd edition of the  Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report, highlighting the progress and challenges in making the fashion industry more conscious.

The summit and the report heavily focused on topics ranging from transparency, circularity, material innovation, digitization to automation and more. Disappointingly, worker’s rights and fair wages were only briefly mentioned (the topic covered only 6.5 pages out of 126), giving it the air of an afterthought. While it is encouraging to see so many of the fashion industry’s who’s who come together to talk about sustainability, the report and summit were remiss in addressing a core truth:

that the fashion industry is built on the oppression of black and brown women, an institutionalized form of racism inherited from a colonial past.

As noted in The Cut, “Sourcemap has traced supply chains for most major clothing and apparel manufacturers, and the data mapping it provides show that world trade routes are mostly the same as they were 150 years ago at the height of European colonial exploitation. In the same way that colonized nations provided cheap sugar, chocolate, coffee, and fruit to the West, “developing” nations now provide cheap semi-disposable clothes to the West and global economic upper classes. Modern Western culture has tried to introduce solutions to sustainability, but those often miss the point.”

Amber Valleta and Tim Blanks at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Image via ELLE

When mostly white authors, who have never stepped foot in a factory or asked the women who make our clothes what is needed to improve the industry, write a 200 page report about the state of the industry, what we get are sustainable solutions that bet on technological innovation and closed loop systems, instead of giving more care and attention to the human lives that are impacted. When brands such as H&M and Kering sponsor content, then the indicators with which we measure the industry’s progress focus on metrics such as “wage payment systems” rather than living wage targets.

In all my years of being a part of sustainability conferences and events, I am always struck by how non diverse these spaces are. Even though the people and communities most impacted by fashion’s decisions are people of color.

Its interesting that while the press now bemoans fashion’s diversity problem on the runways and magazine covers, there is scant attention as to why the funders, advocates and spokespersons leading the sustainability conversations are so non-diverse?

In the same way transparency champions declare an “if you can’t see it, you can’t fix it” ethos, the industry must pass the mic back to the black and brown women who bring our clothes to life and ask her what is needed.

It was heartening to see allies such as Livia Firth demanding a living wage at the Summit last year and Orsola de Castro representing Fashion Revolution’s #whomademyclothes movement and for calling out the secretive nature of the fashion supply chain this year. But why can’t we hear directly from the voices at the frontlines? Why not have Kalpona Akter from Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity or Ashila Niroshi from Stand-Up Movement Sri Lanka – women who listen to maker voices everyday and know what is needed. We need to pass the mic back so we can stop talking about the inequalities in the fashion supply chain from an intellectual level and hear from experience.

Denmark’s Crown Princess Mary delivering the opening remarks. Image via Vogue

“All players within the industry must join forces to create an ecosystem that supports transformational innovation and disruptive business models,” Mary, the Crown Princess of Denmark, said during her opening address at the summit. She’s right, but it’s also time for sustainability conversations to be more human centered. Let’s hear from front line activists who are dealing with shrinking wages, unsafe conditions, sexual harassment, dumping of clothes and the contamination of their water. Because once we do, we will recognize that with 6 out of 10 garments incinerated or thrown within their first year of production, we can’t “circularity” our way out of this mess.

Technology and innovation aside, we are simply buying too much, for too little money, and throwing it away too fast – and the most devastating impact is on black and brown bodies.

Without connecting the issues of sustainability to the human hands that power our industry, we cannot effectively achieve the objective of creating a responsible, humane, and ethical way of doing business.

Yes, technological innovation, transparency and circularity are important in creating sustainable solutions. But in an industry where it is becoming increasingly popular to advocate for feminism and racial equality, we need to put our investments and decision-making powers towards initiatives that actually leave black and brown women better off in the long-term.

This means creating a future where they can have access to equal pay, education, and a safe working environment free from danger and sexual harassment.

When we go undercover at Remake to bring back stories of the women behind our labels, I am always struck by how poised, ready and fierce she is in what she wants the world to know – be it Char Wong in Cambodia or Rubina in Pakistan. How eager she is to speak her truth in front of cameras despite the fact that no one has ever really asked her before.

Next year, we hope to see women like these represented at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. She is the real pulse of the industry.

Cover Photo: Highsnobiety

Join the Conversation

  1. After first quickly browsing before reading, my first remark was “but there aren’t any diverse people in these photos! What is this post even about?!?” I’m glad you covered that in your article. I hope to see diverse women like that next year, too, as well as across the board. How can we help to make it happen?

  2. Well said Ayesha

    I am so glad this article is getting posted here and that you continue to speak out on the truths you witness directly through your own work.

    Perhaps Copenhagen Fashion Summit could sponsor women working in the supply chain to speak next year?

    With Remake facilitating a panel discussion!

    Lynda Grose
    Chair Fashion Design, California College of the Arts

  3. I found out this article in May 2020 because I’m taking a course about Fashion’s Future: The Sustainable Development Goals by Fashion Revolution (@fash_rev) and this was shared in the comment section.

    Greetings from El Salvador.

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