We can’t talk about sustainability in fashion without discussing its colonial roots.
What does colonialism have to do with fashion?
While colonialism is often thought of as a period of time that happened in history, when we take a look at the structures and systems that the fashion industry (and the economy as a whole) was built upon and is still operating on, it’s clear that colonization is deeply embedded in the industry — and our economy — to this day.
“Colonialism is not a thing of the past, it’s an economic reality”, Céline Semaan of Slow Factory points out.
When we think about the fashion industry in its simplest form, it typically functions by companies in the Global North:
- Extracting resources from the Global South, such as cotton using environmentally degrading processes like industrial agriculture (i.e. synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, monocultures, genetically-modified seeds, etc.) and in some cases, forced labor to pick that cotton.
- Exploiting labor from the Global South by always being on the hunt for the lowest prices and consistently pushing down prices given to factories. This, in turn, leads to poverty-level wages and unsafe conditions for garment workers or even slave and child labor.
This very system is what creates the finished products that are then marked up and sold to customers in the Global North.
As Céline Semaan points out in The Cut, the world trade routes being used today to exchange labor, resources, and goods are largely the same as they were a century and a half ago.
In other words, the same routes that Europeans used to transport cheap sugar and coffee are the routes being used today to bring cheap fashion to western consumers.
And just as the colonial systems of the past relied on slave labor and other forms of labor exploitation, today’s multi-national fashion brands and conglomerates continue to take advantage of and profit off of a vulnerable workforce of mostly women of color in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and Ethiopia.
When we put it in this context, the legacy of colonization in fashion today becomes much clearer.
While formerly colonized countries may technically be independent today, these countries are not free of colonial powers — they are heavily impacted by the influence colonial powers have on their economy, culture, and even politics.
We see the impact of modern-day colonization in the Global South through poverty-level wages, unsafe — or even deadly — conditions, and the denial of essential worker protections like the right to organize for garment workers.
We also see it through the lens of the colonial powers when we look at the billionaires in Europe and the United States (mostly white men) who have built their fortunes from the same industry.
Most recently, we witnessed the perils of this system during the economic fallout of COVID-19. When retail sales fell in March and April 2020, we saw brands collectively cancel or refuse to pay for billions of dollars worth of orders — including orders in production and already produced — which left factories in countries like Bangladesh with insufficient funds to continue to employ garment workers or even to pay out severance.
The Center for Global Workers’ Rights found that brands owed $16.2 billion in revenue just in the three months from April to June 2020.
Brands and retailers prioritized shoring up their own books before ensuring even the most basic protections for workers.
Even when brands turned a profit, they continued to left garment workers behind.
Advocacy nonprofit Remake found that garment worker wages dropped 21% during the pandemic while the top 20 most profitable fashion brands increased their market value by 11% during the pandemic.
Fashion’s Influence on Centralizing Culture
Another major way that colonization is embedded into fashion today is through culture.
Fashion has been and continues to be a main driver of promoting eurocentric beauty standards as the norm and the definition of beauty.
Fashion brands and retailers have done this through the models they choose to send down the runways, the advertising campaigns that they create, and now, they are doing it through the influencers they decide to work with.
Media is also a driving force for this euro-centralization of “beauty” through which models they select for their covers and fashion editorials, how they decide to talk about what is “in” or on-trend, which celebrities they focus on, which designers they spotlight, and what they promote as “classics” or essentials” for everybody.
These euro-centric beauty standards can even be found in magazines and advertising campaigns created for countries outside of Europe or the US.
The problems are not just about the exclusion of marginalized cultures though — it can sometimes be about the inappropriate “inclusion” of certain elements of a marginalized culture by the dominant culture outside of the original context. This misuse of patterns, symbols, styles, and other culture-specific design elements is referred to as cultural appropriation.
While “incorporating” or being “inspired” by other cultures might seem like a positive thing at first, we must understand the context and the history.
As writers Tahmina R. and Irisa R. say in The Pvvblication, “There is a myth that the more globalized the world becomes, the traditions and customs of all people can be poured into an ever-churning pot, where no one really holds any particular ‘ownership’ of anything. But in stripping a garment of its specific context and the meaning that comes with that, then repackaging it in a way that appeals to a dominant group, it values its aesthetic quality over its actual purpose and meaning.”
Why is this so problematic? “Historically, cultural appropriation has been mobilized as a way to preserve certain aspects of a minority culture that fit the dominant group’s interests while purposefully discarding others, leading to cultural erasure, Tahmina and Irisa point out.
Writer Nnaemeka Ugochukwu also explains in Eco Warrior Princess that many BIPOC are “still experiencing the legacies of the long history of colonization and know that historically, whatever the West has “appreciated”, they often end up taking by force. From land to art to cuisines to other practices, this scenario has played out repeatedly over the years. So, when people scream about cultural appropriation, it is not just about a hairstyle or dress or headgear. It is about decades of precedence.”
From labor exploitation to environmental degradation, from cultural appropriation to unrealistic beauty standards, from the lack of inclusion in the office to lack of diversity in marketing campaigns, the fashion industry is entangled with no shortage of social and environmental issues.
But we cannot look at these issues as separate. We must dig deeper to address the systemic structures that have created such an unjust, exploitive, and extractive system.
We must decolonize, decentralize, and democratize fashion if we are to ever achieve a sustainable fashion industry.
What Would Decolonizing Fashion Look Like?
The calls for decolonizing fashion are not new. BIPOC leaders — including Aditi Mayer, Dominique Drakeford, and Kimberly Jenkins — have long been pushing this discussion forward and paving the way for a decolonized future of fashion.
As Kimberly Jenkins explained in an interview with Fashionista, decolonization can also be understood as “decentralization”. It involves de-centering Eurocentric or Euro-American identity as the standard for beauty, for design, for aesthetics, for language, and so on.
Aditi Mayer, another thought-leader in decolonization, shares that decolonizing fashion involves rethinking power structures, reevaluating definitions of “success” and prioritizing environmental sustainability.
Below is a list of some ways that we can work collectively to continue the work of decolonizing fashion. In no way does the following list claim to be comprehensive — it’s simply a starter list! There is a Further Reading Guide at the end of this article for diving deeper.
1. Look at Ownership and Power.
Surface-level diversity efforts and tokenism won’t cut it. As Aditi Mayer puts it, “the sustainable fashion movement must center BIPOC voices as leading actors — communities that have nearly always been historically sustainable, despite the colonial hangover their cultures have experienced.”
Some ways to put this into practice: look to BIPOC creators and influencers in the sustainability and conscious fashion spaces, invest in BIPOC content creators via Patreon or other means if you are able to, and shop from Black-owned, Indigenous-owned, and People/Person of Color-owned brands when/if you do purchase something.
If you only buy secondhand, you can still support BIPOC-owned vintage shops. Check out this guide to Black-owned vintage shops and this one for BIPOC-owned vintage shops.
While large fashion brands who have profited off of this system are not going to be the ones to change the system, we can also certainly use our voices to push brands to do better and go beyond woke-washing and insufficient “diversity and inclusion” efforts. Follow Remake to stay updated on their latest campaigns for demanding better from brands.
2. Rethink and Restructure Existing Systems.
There must be a total restructuring of who profits and garners wealth from the fashion indusry.
The inequality could not be starker: top fashion CEOs earn what a garment worker earns in her entire lifetime in just four days, according to Oxfam.
As a start, Remake has launched the PayUpFashion campaign demanding seven actions brands need to take for a fairer industry. These actions are:
- Pay Up for canceled or delayed orders during the pandemic without discounts
- Keep Workers Safe
- Go Transparent by providing factory lists, disclosing wages, and publishing audits
- Give Workers Center Stage by ensuring at least 50% representation of women worker voices
- Sign Enforceable Contracts that protect and center workers
- End Starvation Wages
- Help Pass Laws that reform corporate structures and supply chain due diligence
Sign the PayUpFashion petition here.
Further, brands should consider how suppliers and makers can benefit from the profits they earn by looking into profit-sharing models (ones that share profits as an addition to living wages, not as the sole meals for income) and co-operative structures.
3. Center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
It’s past time to center designers, makers, thought-leaders, and others in the industry who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Here are some examples of how this might look in action. This list is by no means exhaustive and is just a starting point.
If you are a white designer or work for a white-owned brand based in the Global North, collaborate with (and share profits with) BIPOC designers and designers from the Global South.
If you run events or host panels, ensure that a significant portion of the thought-leaders you work with are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Also seek out designers, creatives, and changemakers from the Global South.
If you are an educator, blogger, or citizen interested in building a better fashion industry, take time to learn about fashion’s true history, not the whitewashed over-centralized, Euro-centric version. The Fashion and Race Database is a great place to start. Their library includes books, podcasts, documentaries, and more for expanding your learning
If and when you are able to and do want to make a thoughtful purchase, check out conscious Black-owned, Indigenous-owned, and Person of Color-owned brands. Also, look into slow fashion brands from Africa, Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere in the Global Majority that are owned by BIPOC.
4. Slowing Down and Producing Less.
Clothing production has nearly doubled in the last 15 years according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation. This ever-increasing pace of an already rapid production model in the fashion industry has wreaked havoc on our environment, forced unrealistic expectations on supplier factories (and therefore garment workers), and created massive amounts of waste, which in a dark irony, are often sent to countries in the Global South to deal with.
The industry must slow down. We need to push for a truly sustainable fashion movement advocating for buying less, swapping and borrowing more, shopping secondhand first, and very intentional purchasing.
Brands must figure out ways to sell and produce less. This can be done by first of all, recognizing that infinite growth is incompatible with physical, ecological limits.
Secondly, brands can look to other ways of earning income, such as offering in-house secondhand programs. Though a thrifting system is not inherently just and actions must be taken to ensure that any resale arm of their business is also equitable.
There’s much more to be learned about this topic — take a look below for additional resources for learning about the decolonization of the fashion industry.
Further Resources on Decolonizing Fashion:
- The Fashion and Race Database Library
- The Root: Decolonizing the Sustainable Fashion Agenda | Conscious Chatter
- Sustainability Must Mean Decolonization | Aditi Mayer in State of Fashion
- Decolonizing Fashion and going beyond the tokenism of diversity | Aditi Mayer of Adimay on Green Dreamer Podcast
- Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion
- Colonialism in Fashion: Brands are Today’s Colonial Masters | Ayesha Barenblat and Aditi Mayer in Remake
- What Decolonization Has to Do With #BlackLivesMatter | Melissa Jun Rowley in Forbes
- Kimberly Jenkins Wants to Help Decolonize Our Understanding of Fashion | Dhani Mau in Fashionista
- Meet the Women Decolonizing Sustainable Fashion | Refinery29
You May Also Want to Read:
65+ BIPOC Creators in the Sustainability and Conscious Fashion Space
100+ Black-Owned Eco & Ethical Fashion and Lifestyle Brands
Living Wages in Fashion: What Will it Take for the Industry to Pay Fair?