inclusivity or bust: why sustainable fashion needs to do more than donate to counter racial injustice

If sustainability had a relationship status, it would read “It’s complicated”. This is because, like many social and political movements, sustainability is anything but linear. It’s robust, complex, and hugely interconnected. When you take a good look, you’re able to see sustainability is not just about using metal straws and reducing waste. To be truly effective, sustainability also must take into account social & economic equality, human rights, accessibility, feminism, and so many more critical elements. So to try to oversimplify sustainability by greenwashing or for the purposes of cutting costs is to undermine all its other essential elements. 

The idea for this blog post actually started with me wanting to share some of my favorite ethical brands. But, after deep-diving into their Linkedin pages and social media, I walked away feeling…discouraged. In response to the current social unrest, many ethical brands have made donations and apologized for their roles in whitewashing the sustainability movement. On the surface, this is good. It’s important for brands to take accountability and for consumers to understand that meaningful change takes time. But, after seeing these brands’ current teams—almost all were completely or majority-white—as well as other glaring holes in their sustainability frameworks, I’m thinking—how can sustainable fashion be accessible & representative when the brands within the industry are currently anything but? 

The bottom line—donating isn’t enough. It’s a good thing to do but it’s not a means to an end in and of itself. So, what do ethical brands need to be doing to create lasting and meaningful change inside and outside of their organizations? Below are the thoughts I have. All require patience from customers, employees, community, and may at first be uncomfortable or even feel counterproductive. But with time, taking the following steps will set a higher standard in the fashion industry and move brands closer towards a truly ethical & sustainable future. 

THOUGHTFUL HIRING   

One of the best ways to judge whether a company is dedicated to a sustainable future is to look at its employees. Is the brand’s team representative of both the professional experience and diverse perspectives necessary to make educated & inclusive business decisions? In order to be profitable and sustainable, brands need a mix of social and business thinkers. The socially-minded thinkers are people equipped to handle community aspects of a brand. These individuals are able to do everything from communicating a brand’s sustainability model to responding to negative social media attention. On the other side, you have business thinkers. These people are responsible for the structure and development of a brand. Because of which, this group tends to be more focused on operations, sourcing, and design processes. 

So why do we need both groups? Let’s look at Reformation for an example. It’s very clear by both their response to accusations of racism and the testimony of Black employees that the brand’s internal structure was in total imbalance. Yes, they may tout sustainable materials and gorgeous designs—the job of business thinkers—but while that part of their business has thrived, their internal and external communities have suffered greatly. 

Although there’s no recipe for a perfect business model, having a representative and professionally diverse team sets ethical brands up to be responsive to business needs and social environments. Brands that embrace differing opinions and encourage critical thought can anticipate their blindspots before someone else does. Whatsmore, with a majority of young consumers feeling, “a strong affiliation to retailers that subscribe to a larger purpose” companies that demonstrate an authentic dedication to social and environmental sustainability stand to win big with their audiences. 

INTENTIONAL SOURCING 

Whether a brand designs and produces its own products or outsources to vendors, social sustainability should be part of both processes. A recent Vogue article followed Renewal Workshop and Parsons design students as they met the suppliers behind some popular ethical brands. The article exposed how rare—yet beneficial—close working relationships between brands and their suppliers are. On the part of suppliers, being able to closely communicate with a brand usually means better wages and safer working conditions. And for the brands, this type of relationship allows for more accurate timelines and less opportunity for error. The article found that taking the time to visit and get to know suppliers can help ethical brands choose “mutually respectful partnership(s)” that align with sustainability goals. More relevantly, this atypical proximity can also help prevent situations as we’ve seen during the global pandemic, where brands pull out of their contracts, leaving suppliers to pick up the bill. 

Brands that create their own products and partner with outside vendors, such as Lisa Says Gah, also have a role to play. These brands, now more than ever, need to welcome POC and Black-owned comapnies to the industry and act as their business allies. There’s no lack of talent out there—Selva Negra, Míe, and AAKS are just a few of the brands that come to mind—and it’s the responsibility of larger ethical brands to practice what they preach on social media.

REFORM SUSTAINABILITY GUIDELINES 

Good on You. BCorp Certified. Fairtrade. Even if you don’t work in sustainable fashion, you’ve probably heard of at least one of these certification organizations. At a glance, the industry standardizations these organizations create are great. They give brands a simple way to distinguish themselves from fast fashion and benefit financially from their missions. But like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, simplification can actually prove very harmful in the context of sustainability. Searching for words like “diversity” and “inclusive” on a few of these organizations’ pages generated slim to no results, which tells us that certifications are missing critical aspects of sustainability. After seeing these sobering gaps for myself, it wasn’t hard to understand why sustainable fashion is currently a mostly white and wealthy community. 

If ethical brands are going to change, they’ll need external guidance. Perhaps this means bringing in third-party consultants for a temporary solution. But long term, the guidelines of sustainability and what is expected from “ethical” brands needs to change. In order for brands to be better, certification groups will first have to make their teams representative enough to prevent blind spots and constantly be reevaluating their processes to make their guidelines more holistic.  

INCLUSIVE SIZING 

Well, this could be its own article, so I’ll try to keep it brief. Here’s what you need to know: 67% of US women are a size 14 or higher. Yet most fashion brands—ethical or not—stop their sizing at an XL or size 12. This shortsightedness is not only discriminatory, it’s also downright dumb. The “Plus” size market is valued at $20.4 billion and counting. And yet, brands still refuse to respond, sighting added costs and design challenges. Meanwhile, brands that have started to extend their sizing, such as Reformation, treat the category like an afterthought, introducing only limited styles and restocking them far less often than smaller sizes. As if the high price of ethical fashion wasn’t enough, people who fall into that extended size category have quite literally been pushed out of the sustainable fashion movement.

So what can brands do? A year or so ago, body positive blogger, Marielle Elizabeth, created a Size Inclusive Survey for brands to use to better understand the desire for ethical, size-inclusive fashion. Brands can use these kinds of guides to better understand the limitations of their current sizing. Or they can collect their own data and use it to expand sizing in a personalized and profitable way. Brands can also look into changing their design processes to make garments easier to alter or restructure their business model to be accommodating to size changes, like Universal Standard has done. Internally too, companies can be more intentional about selecting job candidates who express a first-hand understanding of size and other types of physical exclusions. 

PAID INTERNSHIPS & APPRENTICESHIPS 

No one should be expected to work for free. No one. This whole “pay your dues” mentality that generations still hang their hats on is outdated and out of touch with reality. As someone who interned for free twice in college, I can tell you I could not have done it without the financial support of my parents. And that privilege does not make me any more qualified than someone who cannot afford to make that same decision. 

Compensating interns and apprentices is a great way to open an ethical brand up to students or individuals who may not have even explored the position if it were unpaid. Not only does compensating attract a larger candidate pool, but it also has the potential to bring in talent that brands would otherwise have to spend time and money pursuing. 

These are just a few of my thoughts—I know, I have a lot of them. But I’m interested to know what your reactions are. What areas do you think ethical brands are falling short in? Do you think it’s reasonable to expect these types of changes from even very small ethical brands? Let me know in the comments.  

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