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.  

ethical summer shopping guide ft. Black and POC owned brands

Summer is the season of dresses, sandals, and surf-ready suits. And retailers loooove to take advantage of your desire to hit the beach or bar in new garments. Just like advertisers market back-to-school as a chance for reinvention and new beginnings, come summer, adults are hit with the same kind of self-improvement rhetoric. Not only is this all a ploy to get you to buy, its also another opportunity for brands to profit off of our own insecurities. If you really think about it, the whole notion of “bikini bodies” and tan lines are ideas that only exist through the belief that we are not good enough as is, that the other nine months of the year, we’re just ‘ok’. And the more we buy into that wholly unsustainable perception of self, the further we reinforce it. 

So this summer, rather than filling your drawers with cheap swimsuits and sling-backs, I suggest you make purchases that enhance your everyday wardrobe and self-image. In the spirit of pride and self-love, the pieces I am sharing below are entirely sourced from Black and POC founded slow fashion brands. While I have tried to pick out some of the ‘cheaper’ items, many of these garnmets are what I would consider ‘investment pieces’. While you browse, I urge you to look beyond the price tags and acknowledge the social and environmental impact your dollar can have when you buy intentionally from a brand that embodies your values. If it’s financially feasible, supporting Black and POC owned clothing companies is a very tangible way to refuse fast fashion and redistribute the wealth within this industry. 

Sueno Jumpsuit by Selva Negra 

Un sueno indeed. I’m in love with this jumpsuit. Its delicate ruffles and perfectly oversized style would be ideal for a rooftop bar—but equally as welcome in any WFH situation. The jumpsuit is made of 100% linen (a natural fiber) and deadstock fabric (material that would otherwise have been thrown away). 

Selva Negra is a 100% POC owned and operated brand. The founders, Kristen Gonzalez and Sam Romero, studied fashion in NYC before going on to co-found their brand. Although their website doesn’t offer detailed information regarding their sourcing and manufacturing processes, they do use mostly natural fibers and recycle fabrics that would otherwise have been disposed of. The company has also committed to offering more size-inclusive garments, limitsing the use of plastic in their offices, and claims to support organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Wildlife Conservation. 

Tencel Bralette by Proclaim 

‘Nude’ is not one color, okay? Got it? Good. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk Proclaim. If you’re like me, you’re always on the search for a better bra. One that fits every curve and line and makes you feel sexy all at the same time. Proclaim was started by Shobha Philips after a lifetime of having her skin color be ignored by the lingerie industry. In response, Shobha created her inclusively nude line of undergarments and a brand that embraces real women’s forms.  

This bralette, like all of Proclaim’s products, is made mostly from Tencel, a soft, naturally derived fiber created from wood pulp. I love the deep V cut of this bralette and can see it fitting perfectly under any of my summer camisoles. Yes, it’s a true basic but if you’re committed to a sustainable lifestyle and/or capsule wardrobe, a piece like this can offer a great deal of versatility and years of wear. 

California Love Long Sleeve Cotton T-shirt by Adele 

I love a good t-shirt. Tuck it. Knot it. Rock it. All about it. In my opinion, a good t-shirt is always worth the investment because it can be worn in sun, snow, rain, and sand. When you invest in a good staple, like a t-shirt, you’re more likely to circulate it through your weekly wardrobe, rather than retiring it every season for a new one.

Adele was started by its founder and namesake, Adele Jackson. Dedicated to sustainability, art, and “conscious awakening” Adele infuses all her work with a thoughtfulness you’d be hard-pressed to find at any fast-fashion brand. What’s more, 10% of all Adele’s profits are donated to organizations, such as My Friend’s Place, and Adele is committed to using materials and manufacturers that pose the least amount of negative impact to the earth.  

Tia Basket by AAKS 

I have yet to meet a woven bag I’m not instantly obsessed with. And no one does woven bags better than AAKS.

The brand was founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi with the goal of sharing the beautiful weaves and vibrant colors of Ghana’s longstanding artisan communities. Made from a combination of leather and palm, each bag is ethically produced and designed to last.

I love this bag, especially for its unique shape and ombre’d color treatment. The handle detailing is absolutely adorable and I know for a fact it can fit anything you’d ever need to summer in style. 

Llamoye Mule by Shekudo 

Mules, mules, mules—I will not tire of them. Crafted from cotton, goatskin, and wood, these babies are head-turners made to be showered with compliments. As for pairings, your options are wide open. I’d suggest a white flare pant or silky floor-length skirt to bring out the best in these shoes. But honestly, it’s hard to do wrong by such a versatile pair of mules. 

All of Shekudo’s shoes are handmade in Nigeria under the careful creative direction of founder, Akudo Iheakanwa. The company makes an effort to use only locally sourced materials in its products and minimizes textile waste by making each product slightly different from others, rather than identical copies. 

Contour One Piece by JADE Swim 

Beach day, anyone? Over the years, I found nothing is more empowering than finding a bathing suit that really fits you. The perfect color. A great design. But in a world of $5 bikinis, these elements can be hard to come by. That’s why I’m so excited by this JADE suit. A great one-piece, this bathing suit features sexy exposure, not to mention a range of awesome colors to choose from. Although their sizing leaves something to be desired (they only go up to an XL) JADE’s suits are highly versatile—made for a swim, yoga class, or even to be worn as a body suit on a night out. Their creator, Brittany Kozerski, comes from a fashion styling background and put a great deal of thought into the design of her suits. On top of their versatility, the suits use “shape retention technology” to sculpt the body while built-in sun protection helps maintain color, wear after wear.  

Sicily Dress by Míe

One limb in this dress and I could die a happy woman. Look at the bow along the shoulder blades. The square neck. The open back. This dress is D-I-V-I-N-E! 

Míe is a company wholly dedicated to slow and more sustainable fashion. The company is based out of Lagos, Nigeria—aka Africa’s fashion capital. Their entire resort line, while pricey, is made from natural materials and biodegradable fibers. The designs for this season feature billowing sleeves, sleek cuts, and richly dyed fabrics. Although I couldn’t personally find any information on the company’s founder, their ‘About’ page does note a commitment to continually revising their processes for the benefit of the earth and their customers. 

It’s about time we talked vintage! You can find vintage Levis on almost every secondhand online marketplace. But when you buy vintage denim from Jane Dottie, your dollar goes even further. 

Tatyana Zhane started Jane Dottie only a year ago. As the daughter of a “extremely hard working single mother”, Tatyana not only started her business with a goal of empowering consumers through the secondhand market, she’s also made lifting up other women an essential part of her business model. Jane Dottie donates a portion of every sale to organizations that support women in need and allows shoppers to leave their own suggestions for worthy causes to donate. 

inclusive sustainability for content creators

I want to start this article by saying that I am a white, middle-class, cis female. I will never be able to understand the challenges, brutality, and barriers faced by Black and POC individuals. But if the mission of this blog is to create an approachable space within sustainability, I need to intentionally create room for those who have been systematically excluded from the movement. This means acknowledging the problematic and elitist structure of sustainability while putting thought into how I can make sustainability more accessible for all. 

Without representation within this community—racial, size, gender, or otherwise—sustainability will only be able to progress so far. We’ve seen it happen in the feminist movement and within political parties. When one privileged group, no matter what their intentions, speaks for those beyond themselves, invaluable perspectives are lost and people are left behind.

So, how and where do we start as creators? I’m not sure there’s one “right” answer. But below are the strategies I believe can be used to accept our mistakes while putting those learnings into action to welcome the perspectives sustainability needs to be a truly inclusive movement. 

Promote sustainable content created by non-white influencers  

If you have an IG you use primarily for business, you know the value of engaging and sharing content. By supporting sustainability-oriented accounts made by Black and POC creators, you’re using the algorithm to expose your followers to perspectives they may relate to or be completely unaware of. It’s not the job of POC individuals to educate white people. But in my opinion, it is the job of those with the inherent privilege to listen to and support underrepresented groups within this community. This could look like IG takeovers, IG Live chats, or weekly content sharing the work of non-white people in the sustainability space. The important element in all these acts is to let the content speak for itself. You don’t always need to throw in your own commentary over a story or in a conversation. Know when adding your own thoughts may be taking away from someone else’s voice instead of amplifying it and be thoughtful in how you share these perspectives. 

Don’t make assumptions 

Composting is so easy! Being vegan is something everyone can do. Sustainability is your responsibility. I’ve said some of these things. At the time, they felt like a fair declaration. But after watching Teanna Empower’s video on elitism in the sustainability & zero-waste movements, I know better. Assumptions like these may seem harmless, but when you take a closer look, you’ll see they’re actually a great example of why the sustainability movement is overwhelmingly white and middle class. 

Assumptions of any kind exacerbate barriers people with privilege can’t often see. If you haven’t experienced a food desert, you don’t know just how hard it can be to find even basic necessities nearby. If you don’t live meal-to-meal, don’t assume that buying a $32 stainless steel water bottle is a realistic choice for everyone. Learn to think broadly and lead with facts. Percentages. Statistical trends. Any and all solid evidence. From there, you’ll be more likely to draw justified opinions instead of unfounded assumptions. 

Stay away from “should”

‘Should’ is a nasty little word. I learned from my therapist that when you use the word ‘should’, you put unwarranted pressure on yourself and others. In sustainability, the word is yet another tool used to separate the “haves” from the “have nots”. And when applied to groups that have been excluded from the sustainability movement, ‘should’ basically says, “Pull yourself up by your bootstrings,” when many people don’t have boots, strings—or even feet (metaphorically speaking).

When writing or speaking, choose your language wisely and steer clear of opportunities to reiterate someone’s ‘otherness’. Rather, find different ways to illuminate the options available versus creating a noninclusive script you assume everyone can follow. 

Give credit where it’s is due

If you wouldn’t plagiarize, why would you take credit for an idea or technique that isn’t yours? Sustainability is an idea that started with indigenous peoples. Period. When you depend on the earth for your food, shelter, and stability, it’s only natural that you develop a deep understanding and appreciation for how climates, waterways, and seasons work. Indigenous traditions labeled “primitive” by colonizers were in fact what held the world in balance and prevented many of the natural and manmade disasters that impact all of us today. 

While we all have a right to participate in sustainability, we do not have a right to take credit for something that is not truly our own. When creating, be sure to cite sources, do interviews, and make sure your content is a reflection of the rich backgrounds and origins within this community.

Offer free events & make essential content accessible to all 

There are ways to open up your platform to more people, both now during the global pandemic as well as afterwards. Start by making all your essential content free. If you have brand guides or heavily researched studies, make that information available to anyone and everyone. Because not everyone has access to the Internet, it’s also helpful to think beyond the screen to postings in public spaces, free in-person events, and phone services. Try to meet people where they are and make yourself available as a resource during every stage of their sustainability journey. 

Open yourself up to feedback 

Again, when it comes to systemic racism, people of color don’t owe white folks education or feedback. But if you can find ways to make yourself available without being presumptive, your platform will be more inclusive for it. You could create a survey and send it out to your blog contact list. Instagram polls are another great way for people to pipe in on their own accord and react to results. Regardless of how you go about it, remember that even though you may hear things that don’t make you feel good in the moment, having that honest feedback and revising yourself accordingly will help make you a greater ally.

Go beyond your platform  

Fundraise. Rally. Protest. Get up and put your words and money where your post is. Showing up in person says that you acknowledge the impact of systemic racism, even if those problems don’t affect you personally. Whether you see it clearly or not, racism connects many social issues. The killing of innocent Black men. Epicenters of poverty. Lack of representation in the workplace. Wage gaps. Sexual exploitation. Food deserts & insecurity. Child labor. The list goes on. Black and POC peoples did not create any of these issues. White people did. Therefore, I and my fellow white creators must play an active and consistent role in the solution going forward.