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Diversity In Sustainable Fashion

Sustainability has quickly become one of the fashion industry’s favourite buzzwords, for it not only makes people feel like they’re a part of something but because it has forced every aspect of the industry to re-evaluate their contributions. Another phrase that is quickly becoming a buzzword is diversity, riddled with the industry’s guilt for overlooking their consumer’s needs. The age in which we live is one that seeks justice for the inequities caused by the industry in the name of creation and relevance. The intertwining of environmental disasters and social collisions are becoming clearer than before, forcing us to intersect our society’s love for visual cultural awareness with the crux of our generation. 

Intersectionality, a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a society/ industry’s social, political and economical identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. For example, in 2018 Vogue used its first black photographer to shoot for the cover in its 125 year history. This is one of the lack of diversity examples associated with the many micro-aggressions within the industry, using black models and other people of colour just enough to sell their products but not allowing them to be a part of executive decisions. In sustainability, however, we look at this issue from a transparency perspective where we can easily point to how brands and the industry overall uses this aspect.

Sustainability is the deliberate avoidance of natural resource depletion in order to maintain an ecological balance, an ideology the fashion industry has ignored for centuries. How do we then transform an industry that has upheld unethical, bureaucratic , anti-environmental and misplaced diversity standards to make a profit?

Stumbling Blocks

The fashion industry has struggled to diversify their class, gender/ sexual and race orientations for which marginalised groups have called the industry out for their unethical conduct. This is in addition to their unsustainable operations throughout the industry’s production, distribution and end of clothing life cycles. Although marginalised and environmental groups have protested and reasoned with the industry to diversify their operations, it is still extremely challenging to reach the decision makers at the top of the industry’s hierarchy. 

This idea is represented by occurrences such as the Rana Plaza disaster where 1,132 workers lost their lives and 2,500 more were injured. The Rana Plaza collapse could have been prevented because structural cracks were identified just a day before the disaster happened, and to make matters worse upper management pressured the workers to come into work the following day to finish orders for commercial brands like Zara and Mango.  

In 2018 we saw Anok Yai, an African American model, open for the Prada show for the first time in 20 years. This was a memorable moment for black models and women across the world, this was supposed to communicate how luxury brands were finally including and representing marginalised groups within the industry. My observation of this moment, however, suggested that the industry always had the power to make this a possibility but chose not to. 

As a black Southern African woman involved in sustainable fashion through my research and writing I feel less than represented within this industry. Eco-friendly and sustainable fashion ideas have been always been presented through Eurocentric declarations. This year began with Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, calling out a publication for cropping her out of a photo she had taken with four other white environmentalists. This is an example of how BIPOC are erased from public environmental discourse and how many of us still struggle to speak up about it. Although not directly involved in fashion, Vanessa Nakate proved to the world once again that we have to work twice as hard to get half of what our white counterparts will benefit.  

Building Blocks

A subculture is a group of people within a culture that differentiates itself from the parent culture to which it belongs, often maintaining some of its founding principles. Sustainable fashion is a subculture within the fashion industry and through its ideas we have seen a rise of issues that the fashion industry has ignored. Inclusivity for example, in traditional fashion, is an ethical issue where minority groups are not allowed to have decision making powers within the industry. In sustainable fashion, however, we are seeing an issue with sizing where plus size individuals fail to find clothes designed to lower environmental and social issues. This issues shows us that a single idea cannot fix all the problems within a larger culture, we need more thinkers, researchers and designers who will cater to each subculture’s issues. 

By acknowledging that the fashion industry needs to focus on more than just their designs and profits, we are dismantling bureaucratic hierarchies where only a select few people get to make decisions. In Africa for instance, we are seeing a growing pool of designers dedicated to showcasing African identities and cultures through organisations like Africa Fashion International (AFI). The AFI has already created value for its sustainable fashion market by observing only two fashion weeks a year, this way they get to eliminate the waste factor by not focusing on trends but seasons instead. 

Traditional fashion weeks have been known to overproduce in hopes of more sales which never happen, wasting raw materials, water and threatening the air that we breathe. By eliminating designs based on trends, the sustainable fashion industry is taking our environmental needs into consideration. Sustainable fashion designers are also created from the beginning of their careers, unlike having to change the way they conduct business in the long term. 

It is evident that market value creation, eco-friendly production and inclusivity of all people are the best responses to improve diversity within the fashion industry. Through sustainable fashion, however, these subcultures/ ideas can be better sourced because the eco-friendly culture advocates for careful deliberation with every issue. Our greatest power as sustainable consumers and knowledge producers are to build communities around the issues we are most passionate about. We might not be able to resolve every issue but we will certainly make a difference with the issues  that we can control. 

Tsholofelo Masela

Tsholofelo Masela

Intentionality is a platform created towards engaging independent and intentional fashion consumers to positively impact social and environmental sustainability.

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