what the sustainable movement is missing about privilege
We talk to activists and writers about how we can make green living more inclusive.
Image via YouTube.
When Payless announced it was closing all of its stores in February 2019, it seemed like another victory for the sustainable fashion movement. As more people are starting to consider the negative impact fast fashion has on the environment, it has become easier to criticize those who still shop at these budget friendly mass retailers while ignoring that there are limited “green” options for marginalized communities.
“There’s a money factor and a level of privilege involved with wearing sustainable clothing,” says Céline Semaan, a designer at the forefront of the sustainable fashion movement who started a sustainable fashion literacy platform called Study Hall.
Over the years we have seen a growing interest in sustainable fashion. A recent report showed that 75 percent of consumers view sustainability as either extremely or very important to them. This growing interest has spread on social media, with more and more influencers posting about sustainable lifestyles. While it’s good to spotlight ecological-minded products, many feel these gestures are not addressing the inequity steeped in the sustainability trend.
This has become a problem because, “those who have the money, time, and privilege, wear the sustainable clothing and wonder why everyone else isn't,” according to Aja Barber, a writer based in London, who is focused on inclusivity and sustainability.
Barber, works tirelessly to raise the bar of ethics through her Instagram account where she highlights the inequality in the sustainability trend to over 20,000 followers. “We simply can’t forget the cost factor,” says Barber. “Typically the sustainable fashion world has also been extremely white and that's a bit weird, especially when fast fashion revolves around people of color often being exploited.”
One issue with buying sustainably is that there’s a lot of research that goes into figuring out which brands are doing things right and which are not, and that takes considerable time — time that unfortunately not everyone can afford.
But, there’s more to it than that. “Sustainability is Blackness. Sustainability is Indigenous. But today sustainability has become a trendy buzz word to make people feel better about themselves — propaganda if you will,” states Dominique Drakeford, founder and Editor-In-Chief of Melanin & Sustainable Style. “Until we peel back these layers and get to the core of this issue, we don’t really progress. Privilege blinders must be removed if you really give a damn.”
According to Anika Kozlowski, an Assistant Professor Fashion Design, Ethics & Sustainability at Ryerson University, “The industry is still designed by a bunch of privileged white people.” Due to this, sustainability is mostly being addressed by those who are reaping the benefits of privilege.
“When it comes down to it and you look at who is at the helm, and really even any conference you go to, anyone who writes about it, and the way design is still taught at schools, at the end of the day, that is the only perspective we really see,” claims Kozlowski.
In this way, the socioeconomic divide, and lack of diversity in the fashion industry, is preventing lower income and POC individuals from participating in necessary dialogues to change the very systems that oppress people. Accordingly, more open and accessible platforms like Study Hall, which gathers leading industry experts in fashion and textile manufacturing, cultural influencers, academics, activists, and artists, could help spread necessary knowledge by bringing together a diverse group of individuals from various ethnicities and areas of the industry to encourage more literacy, and help people recognize these deeper issues.
Still, Semaan believes it’s important to recognize that not everyone in every fashion company production department is inherently bad, but that “we are stuck in the momentum of a system that relies on exploitation to provide products for sale, and that every effort to improve the system, and break out of those systems will be working against the grain.” So while it’s okay to hold retailers like Payless accountable, it is important that people also seek new opportunities to make sustainable fashion more inclusive and accessible.
“Folks with privilege definitely need to scrutinize public policy and understand how unsustainable and racist the system really is — systems based thinking is critical at this juncture,” argues Drakeford. “Instead of creating another white-owned sustainable brand (which is totally fine) — why not create an effort that tackles the system, the foundation, the infrastructure that continues to thrive from oppression?”
Ultimately, it’s time for brands and consumers to consider the ways in which issues such as privilege and colonialism have shaped sustainability into a mainstream movement, which leaves out the experience of marginalized communities. In order to rethink the outdated and racist system, we will need to address these issues head on and band together to make lasting change. As Drakeford says, “The solution is very much a systemic solution — but the first step is always a harsh reality check. Everyone has a lot of homework to do.”