The fashion industry has a long history of racism

And performative activism won't change that.

I have spent the last month reflecting on the global conversation around racial injustice and my role in upholding a system of white supremacy. I am continuously learning and unlearning and will ensure that Not What It Seams is a safe, inclusive space. Today, I’m talking about racism in the fashion industry - a very complex issue which demands a long newsletter post. I won’t be able to cover everything, but I am continuing the conversation over on the NWIS Instagram where I will be talking about these topics in much greater detail. Because black lives always matter, not just when it’s trending.

Fashion is no stranger to racism. It is an extremely whitewashed industry and one that has continually shown preference for white designers, white runways and white CEOs. This preference does not extend to garment production, where millions of people of colour stitch together our clothes in exploitative conditions.

The fashion industry as we know it was founded on colonialism and slavery. Beginning in the 16th century, European states invaded the continents of Asia, Africa and South America in search of resources and cheap labour. Even formal European dress became a means of subjugation, serving as a symbol of status and entitlement to power.

Cotton was one of the first textiles to be industrialised, linking either side of the Atlantic Ocean during the height of the slave trade. Though it was abolished in 1808, slavery continued on the American cotton plantations for decades, paving the way for racial segregation. At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism intensified, and with it colonial violence and marginalisation.

Inheriting this colonial legacy, fast fashion’s economic model continues to extract indigenous resources and render the Global South dependent on western trade. The demand for cheaper clothes and labour are the same, as brands competitively outsource production to boost profit margins. Modern slavery and exploitative labour are similarly rife, leaving those at the bottom of the supply chain the most vulnerable to economic instability.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bangladesh, one of the many countries in which high-profile brands are refusing to #PayUp for already processed or completed apparel orders. The textile industry accounts for around 80% of Bangladesh's exports, so the fallout has been catastrophic. Forbidden from unionising, millions of garment workers are now without pay and at risk of starvation and homelessness.

80% of global garment workers are women of colour, many of which are operating in previously colonised countries. This begs the question of which lives really matter throughout the fashion supply chain.

Fashion also suffers from a lack of diversity. Without inclusive leadership or representative marketing, brands are doomed to repeat the same racist mistakes. The fashion industry has a loooong history of misappropriating black culture; stealing the intellectual property of black designers; tokenising black models as exotic Others; having whitewashed runways; lacking representative social media feeds or press trips; using blackface in advertising; erasing black designers; pushing white European beauty standards; and adopting anti-black hiring practices and workplace bias. These problems are similarly upheld in fashion media, as Anna Wintour’s apology has shown.

It is against this backdrop that fashion brands responded to the murder of George Floyd with meaningless black squares. As Jason Campbell and Henrietta Gallina write, “the fashion's industry’s slow and lacklustre responses to racial injustice … has overwhelmingly been underwhelming, all too often consisting of vague statements and repurposed content. And black people in the fashion business know all too well that these symbols of support are no reflection of the darker realities under the surface of the industry.”

Virtually all fashion brands engaged in performative activism - posting because they felt pressured to and deemed it profitable, instead of being committed to the cause. What many didn’t do was use their platform to link anti-racist resources and petitions, encourage direct donations or open up their purse.

Topshop who is refusing to pay up, Gucci who sold a jumper resembling blackface, L'Oreal who fired transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for calling out racism and Anthropologie who has a secret code name for black customers all claimed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s nothing short of a publicity stunt.

In The Style have a particular obsession with capitalising on crisis by producing purpose-washing, tax-deductible charity tees. That a white owned brand’s initial response was to indirectly profit off a black movement is telling. It is also hypocritical to exploit minority garment workers in the name of anti-racism. Add to that that they had last featured a black model on their feed in January and their t-shirt design was seemingly stolen and you have yourself a recipe for backlash. They responded by deleting their original t-shirt post and turning off the comments on their #BlackOutTuesday post. The owner, meanwhile, pleaded white victimhood when questioned on Twitter if he had any black employees. Days later, In The Style released an official statement, pulled the t-shirts from their site and donated £10,000 to the George Floyd Memorial Fund. I won’t hold my breath for any real change.

But the problem is not limited to fast fashion or luxury labels. Reformation’s CEO, Yael Aflalo, recently resigned after former employee, Elle Santiago, recalled her experiences working in a racist environment. You cannot claim to be a sustainable fashion brand if you are unethical and racist.

Beyond the moral imperative, it pays to be inclusive. Quoting Rachel Cernansky, “research has shown that companies with more diverse leadership have better environmental compliance reporting, in addition to stronger financial returns”. Tackling racism in the fashion industry, then, is going to require more than a few performative social media posts. It’s going to take structural shakeups, meaningful anti-racism work and better diversity measures.

Environmental educator, Dominique Drakeford, sums this up perfectly: At a very base level, it’s [about] passing the mic and understanding that black and brown folks have had the answer to environmental crises, and have created circular regenerative practices forever, so passing the mic to people who have true agency and scope in solving these issues is what needs to happen. And when I say pass the mic, I don’t mean pass and hold the mic stand. I mean literally relinquish the mic.”  Fashion brands should take note.


In other news…

Ordinarily, I would be listing two-week’s worth of news to catch up on. But then I launched my newsletter at the end of June, an incredibly eventful 30 days. So to save time and space, I’m listing 30 articles, blog posts and podcasts I have learnt from this month. Next time, I hope to offer more context and details!

  1. Who made my pride merch?

  2. 24 queer and ethical brands to support this Pride

  3. Is seasonless fashion the solution to the industry’s climate problem?

  4. The head of LFW on how the fashion industry must reflect, listen and adapt to a changing world

  5. Why luxury brands aren’t giving up on fashion month

  6. Op-Ed | A racist incident at fashion week

  7. The Black in Fashion Council will establish an equality index score for companies across the industry

  8. The fashion industry has failed black people—here’s what needs to change

  9. Why every environmentalist should be anti-racist

  10. Read up on the links between racism and the environment

  11. Okay, what’s the deal with crisis-inspired merch?

  12. Tansy Hoskins on why people in Primark are not your enemy

  13. How to avoid the greenwashing trap

  14. Google is tracking sustainable raw materials. Will fashion buy in?

  15. The great carbon distraction - why the Allbirds x Adidas collaboration isn’t all it seems

  16. Fashion made from ocean plastic might not be what you think it is

  17. Fashion was broken even before the pandemic. A reboot could be just what it needs

  18. Jailed for a Facebook post: garment workers' rights at risk during Covid-19

  19. Surviving on a bag of rice: plight of Bangladeshi garment makers

  20. Who do Bangladeshi fast fashion garment makers believe wears the clothes They make? Osman Yousefzada found out in this emotive short film

  21. Fast jewellery: the true cost of costume and where to find ethical pieces

  22. Can H&M put the brakes on fast fashion?

  23. This #NoNewClothes pledge encourages brands to centre their sustainability efforts around justice and wellbeing

  24. Support the #Klarnaa campaign calling for greater regulation of Buy Now Pay Later schemes

  25. Has lockdown changed the way we dress and our attitudes to fashion?

  26. Does shopping secondhand actually reduce overall clothing consumption?

  27. Online resale appears to be pandemic-proof

  28. The YIKES podcast: Toxic positivity & anti-racism

  29. Good Together podcast: How COVID-19 has changed fast fashion forever

  30. Bad Activist podcast: Antiracism work is for life


What is intersectional environmentalism?

I was first introduced to this term by Leah Thomas, an intersectional environmental activist and eco-communicator. Leah recently set up the Intersectional Environmentalist platform which educates users on the steps they can take to make their campaigns more inclusive. They define intersectional environmentalism as:

An inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalised communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimise or silence social inequality.

This is a poignant reminder that the climate crisis is not some universal equaliser. It is a driver of injustice as the poorest communities of colour continue to be the most vulnerable and hardest hit. Meanwhile, those who bear the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis – those who have colonised and capitalised – will feel its effects last. So, climate justice and social justice are one and the same, both unachievable without the other.

In light of recent events, this conversation seems more needed than ever. I’d urge you to read this article by Aja Barber on why we need to keep our movements intersectional and this post which lists some amazing anti-racist resources.


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