** This post was originally published on Melanin & Sustainable Style. **
Who The Hell Wants To Only See WHITE WOMEN In Sustainable Fashion?
It's Black History Month (according to the calendar) and the start of New York Fashion Week. We would be remised if we didn't discuss sustainable fashion and race relations. The woman behind the above quote is a well known, recognized and respected pioneer in the ethical fashion space. And although we love her and the work she does, we can't help but point out a tragically consistent sentiment in the sustainable fashion space, not just by her, but my MANY women.
Whether we like to admit it or not, sustainable fashion is dominated by privileged white women (which isn't always a bad thing) ... but how you navigate your privilege and use it as a platform for authentic change is what sets you apart from the rest.
Within a community that is seemingly doing everything right (sarcastically said), conversations of representation, tokenism, privilege, discrimination, etc are just now starting to surface. And quite honestly we are at the point where if you're a "sustainable" brand where cultural relevancy and diversity is not part of your mantra - then you shouldn't really be called a sustainable at all. (Since it's "Black History" ... we're going to let the sustainable fashion community in on a little secret ... melanin communities are the reason why there is such thing as sustainable fashion, and the irony is .... we weren't the ones exploiting the systems to begin with.)
More than anything, we want to see more WOC as sustainable fashion designers and curators. However, and as equally as important, it's imperative that we see brands that are ran by white women, who authentically represent women of color (of all shades and backgrounds) in their collections. The most successful brands are the one's who build this type of thinking into their DNA from the very beginning.
WE DON'T KNOW WHAT THE RULES OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION WERE BEFORE, BUT ...
No longer is it acceptable not to have WOC represented throughout your brand. No longer is it okay to be "inspired" by WOC / indigenous communities and not be inspired enough to have them "us" as part of your brand marketing. If a WOC is dying, sewing, weaving and helping to cultivate your brand IN ANY WAY and she is not seen outside of being a laborer, then YOU ARE NOT A SUSTAINABLE BRAND ... you are in fact appropriating and FAKE AS HELL! WOC face insurmountable amounts of discrimination within the fashion industry at large. The ethical and conscious fashion community SHOULD be different! And all semantics aside, WOC ARE FUCKING BEAUTIFUL AND WOULD MAKE ANY BRAND LOOK 10 TIMES BETTER!
As much as we focus on POC owned sustainable fashion brands, we also want to acknowledge brands founded by white women but who make a point to be inclusive. We wanted to ask 3 brands (ran by white women) who have been making an effort at inclusion (although it should be effortless in 2018). These women who we interviewed aren't prefect, nor are we claiming them to be activists for black and brown communities, but we just want to acknowledge their small efforts and learn a bit more about their understanding of diversity!
CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW:
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE FASHION MEAN TO YOU?
BDAC: Sustainable fashion to me is being able to provide the consumer with a product that is made with the environment in mind, ie: using repurposed fabrics/environmentally friendly fabrics/etc. Bascially anything that isn’t contributing to the pollution problem the fashion industry keeps contributing to.
TROVE: For Trove, it means we care more about the people who are making our garments than the profit we can make off of them. It means helping re-write the story of fast fashion where someone pays the cost for expedited trends to our marketplace and it is usually those on the manufacturing side.
GRAMMAR: Sustainable fashion means doing things properly, being conscious and thoughtful about the work, employing the triple bottom line: people, planet & profit. I can never say that I am perfect – it’s a constant learning process. But to me, striving for sustainability has always been the obvious thing to do. It’s much harder than it should be – the system is not set up for transparency and responsibility. Only through continuous, collective action & demand over many years will we slowly move the needle. It happened with the food industry over the past 25-30 years, so I am hopeful that it will happen for the fashion industry.
WHAT CONNECTION (IF ANY) DO YOU SEE BETWEEN WOC AND SUSTAINABLE STYLE?
BGAC: I feel like everyone is becoming more aware. I honestly haven’t had the convo with too many of my friends who are WOC. I think that the friends I’ve had the convo with are shopping more sustainably and do support the brand.
TROVE: Racism is as real and ramped as fast fashion. Both are heavy human rights issues that need serious attention and reconciliation. In both scenarios, it is often ignorance that leads many to partaking in racist or unsustainable behavior. But when will ignorance stop being a scapegoat for doing better? While every person and individual act counts towards progress in either of these realms, it is up to the larger whole to make the type of monumental shifts these issues are calling for.
GRAMMAR: I strive to be inclusive with my brand and make clothing for all women. WOC and sustainability are completely linked for me. In terms of the “people” aspect of the triple bottom line – WOC represent a large majority of the producers of fashion, yet are under-represented in the imagery of the consumer-facing side. This needs to change. We need to celebrate and exhibit the beauty, style, and power of WOC. We should also re-think the imagery and cultural perceptions around garment workers. Factory jobs are a crucial part of the American economy, the middle class, and thus the American dream. There is so much dignity in that and I am so proud to support New York’s garment workers, many of whom are WOC. Supporting WOC is also incredibly important to sustainability of profits. The proportion of WOC in America and the world is only growing, and their buying power is on the rise. As a designer and entrepreneur, I need to provide solutions for WOC in order to remain in business. I’m sure we can find a link to the planet too! We all live here; we all have a responsibility to take care of Mother Earth. That includes WOC!
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO HAVE WOC REPRESENTED IN YOUR BRAND?
BGAC: BDAC believes in diversity, I have friends that are of every nationality and I want that to be represented with our brand. I also understand the LACK of diversity in the fashion industry and it’s very important to us to be inclusive in ever way possible. It’s our beliefs and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
TROVE: It's important to us because we want WOC to be seen as the consumer, the model, the woman on the other end of the supply chain that one aspires to be - not just the Artisans we partner with overseas. If we are going to be a lifestyle brand that claims their fashion is stylish, affordable and responsibly made - that has to appeal to ALL women, not just affluent white women. Plus, whether or not I like it/want it/act on it - I have white privilege simply by the color of my skin and the country and circumstances I was born into. It is my responsibility to use that privilege to be an example for what my ideals for equality should look like. Therefore, what I do, or don't do, as a business owner is important to set a standard for what I expect of all other business owners - particularly white, female business owners.
GRAMMAR: It’s important to me to have a diverse and vibrant community around Grammar. Having WOC represented in our imagery sends the message that we welcome all kinds. I want to use my voice (and my privilege) to stand up for my fellow women. I’m not blind – I understand that as difficult as it is for women in this world, it is exponentially more difficult for WOC. The least I can do is hire a model of color. I have been disappointed by how difficult that is! It’s obviously a supply and demand thing – I have heard that models of color find more work in Europe than in the US. That’s so messed up! The industry needs to come together to celebrate diversity and the true beauty of all women. And – let’s be real – white shirts look amazing on dark skin. I have aesthetic motivations too!
WHEN YOU SEE ANOTHER SUSTAINABLE FASHION BRANDS WHO LACK DIVERSITY IN THEIR MARKETING CAMPAIGNS ( WEBSITE, INSTAGRAM, RUNWAY, ETC.) DO YOU NOTICE? (BE HONEST, IT'S OKAY IF YOU DON'T)
BGAC: I definitely do. It’s SUCH a big issue and it really boggles my mind how people can’t be more racially diverse and why it’s such an issue!
TROVE: We do. It's disheartening because we live in the most diverse generation to date. And to be honest, WOC models or "ethnically ambiguous" women (that is a term I frequently heard in my former career as a Producer) are seemingly readily available in the modeling industry so it feels strange and off-putting to not incorporate them.
GRAMMAR: Do I notice – yes, of course. There’s a lack of diversity all over the place, but I definitely notice with fashion because I’m paying attention. I care about the industry and the role we play in our culture. We are creating imagery that women and girls look to for inspiration and aspiration. We need to take responsibility for what we put out in the world.
DOES HAVING WOC REPRESENTED IN YOUR BRAND POSITIVELY OR NEGATIVELY AFFECT SALES?
BGAC: We’ve only been around for 6 months and we’ve literally had woc as our main campaign ads since we’ve launched so We cant say that it has or hasn’t. I would HOPE It hasn’t but the only way I would be able to find out if if we had all white People in a campaign which is something We’re not going to do.
TROVE: You know every collection we've ever launched has featured a WOC, so I can't draw a true analytical comparison. However, I will say, I have gotten nothing but positive responses from customers/follows complimenting our WOC models and taking note that we're being intentional about including racial diversity and appealing to a diverse customer base.
GRAMMAR: It’s definitely a positive. When women see themselves represented they are more likely to buy – I open the brand up to more people by working with WOC.
HOW WILL YOU CONTINUE TO SHARE YOUR MESSAGE OF INCLUSION?
BGAC: We will continue to hire and work with anyone based on their skills and ability to get our message across. We currently have an all women team for day to day activities and have a WOC friend that’s working w us bc she’s FREAKING AMAZING. We will continue to not judge anyone based on their skin color or their upbringing but how we can mutually help each other. We want to show the world it’s wonderful to be who you are and that doesn’t need to Change.
TROVE: We want to continue to feature WOC as models in our branding, but also through partnerships and collaborations in business. It's important for us to support all women in business - whether that is one African woman from Rwanda or a blogger/author/artist of color stateside. We'll continue to hopefully convey that we are all bound together. That we all belong to one another. That caring about people means caring about the situations they're in and helping them get out of them, if that's their desire.
GRAMMAR: I plan to continue to represent diversity in my imagery and support WOC in any way I can. I plan to hire WOC as employees, and continue to work with WOC and WOC-owned businesses – both bloggers and influencers and suppliers and factories. I will continue to challenge myself to participate in and initiate conversations around race and representation. I am always open to feedback & suggestions!