Fashion is an industry built on the essential nature of clothing, which is driven forward by the buying public’s ever-changing taste. In 2020, as consumer tastes shifted in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, only the fittest survived. And many who did are among those who have of late adopted a message of “sustainability,” a catchall watchword that promises brands are, at a bare minimum, thinking twice about their roles in the cycle of perpetual consumption. A single definition can be hard to pin down, but Kate Fletcher, design activist, scholar, and author of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys, has said that fashion sustainability is “Fashion that fosters ecological integrity and social quality through products, practices of use, and relationships; a more authentic, flexible, and interconnected view of fashion, people, and the world; fashion that helps us engage, connect, and better understand ourselves, each other, and our world; and fashion that engages with a process of flourishing of human and non-human species.”
It’s what shoppers seem to want. IBM published a 2020 consumer report in association with the National Retail Federation, with nearly 8 in 10 respondents indicating the importance of sustainability to their consumption habits. According to the report, 40% of respondents were “purpose-driven consumers, who select brands based on how well they align with their personal values and [brands] who are willing to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to sustainability [and] changing their behavior.” Customers like these have mounted pressure on brands throughout the past year to commit to a base level of transparency. For sustainable brands, this wasn’t exactly new territory, but since the start of the pandemic, the conversation has moved beyond earlier ideas of sustainability, which tended to be focused primarily on fashion’s environmental impact. In a time when COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black people, police violence continues to threaten Black life every day, and the statement “Black Lives Matter” is more rooted in politics than humanity, many now understand sustainability should not stop at organic cotton and friendly factories.
Take the saga of Reformation. After the ready-to-wear and accessories brand offered a response to the murder of George Floyd last May, a number of former employees found the response hypocritical, and voiced their experiences of racism within the company. A former flagship assistant manager garnered more than 26,000 likes after sharing her experience at the company in the comments of Reformation’s now deleted Black Lives Matter post. She further detailed in a separate post, which garnered more than 60,000 likes, racist behavior from the brand’s founder, Yael Aflalo, and how a white former vice president posted a photo of herself eating fried chicken on her personal Instagram in 2014, with the caption, “Happy black history month!!” Other employees followed suit, and Aflalo eventually stepped down after a public apology (also since deleted).
The brand, long heralded as a leader in sustainable fashion, self-published a 2020 sustainability report in February that read, “We [Reformation] weren’t taking a broad enough view of sustainability and needed to focus more on its social impact. Now, we recognize that racial justice and environmental justice are inherently linked, and we must incorporate both in order to further our sustainability mission”
In many ways the trend toward an idea of sustainability that includes anti-racism is a corrective to earlier ways of thinking about the concept. A growing number of voices are fighting to point out that production does not happen in a vacuum and that questioning its effects must extend beyond the earth to include the lives it harms—most often those of Black and Brown people.
For Whitney Mcguire of Sustainable Brooklyn, the conversation has always gone beyond environmentalism. “We’re talking about Bangladesh, we’re talking about Dominican Republic and Haiti, and how the fashion industry basically pillages these small communities, cultures, and places that have largely Black and Brown populations, and extracts them for their labor, and then leaves them high and dry and goes somewhere else where they can find cheaper manufacturing and cheaper labor, leaving all of the pollutants behind, leaving all of the people who were relying on that network of support,” she said.
McGuire, now an attorney specializing in legal issues within creative industries, cofounded Sustainable Brooklyn along with Dominique Drakeford, a nontraditional environmental educator, out of a shared frustration with the erasure of Black voices when it comes to sustainability issues. Their first event was a town hall at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn in 2018. A standing-room-only crowd participated in a conversation with topics like the way colonization has impacted Black consumption habits. Sustainable Brooklyn has continued its mission through online educational series, symposia, brand partnerships, and volunteering, all while amplifying the voices of the Black community.
“Before we even get to sustainability and fashion, we have to look at how sustainability and environmentalism has been portrayed,” said Drakeford. “The dominant narrative has been constructed and informed by whiteness. We have to understand that that’s been oppressive throughout the whole trajectory since inception.… We’ve been sacrificed within the mainstream sustainability space. So subsequently, when you get to fashion, it’s the same thing.”
Advocates for change such as Drakeford and McGuire say that a sustainable reimagining of the fashion system will only be successful if the communities most closely connected to the environmental crisis are at the center of the solutions. The sustainability movement as a whole must reckon with the ways it has failed to understand its aims.
“If [mainstream sustainability movements] can’t even engage serious Black women in this conversation, then they’re not going to be able to properly advocate for Black communities. It can’t be sustainable unless you have Black voices in the room,” said Aurora James, founder of sustainable luxury brand Brother Vellies and creator of the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.
“For a long time, sustainability has been a problem that’s been easy for people to look outward to try to fix,” James continued. “There’s been a lot of companies that are very quick to talk about sustainability, but not quick to talk about racial equality. But at the same time, we also know that climate change most directly and most quickly impacts Black and Brown communities.”
James grew up in a family that was always environmentally conscious. Through her mother’s travels and through her own in later years she immersed herself in the way cultures abroad cultivated sustainable communities. She never set out to create a brand that was “sustainable,” but instead learned from the artisans that she would eventually work alongside to design for Brother Vellies. Finding inspiration on the coast of Africa, using the natural resources, materials, and traditional practices, James was more interested in challenging herself to design in a way that did not emit waste and used what was readily available. Learning the native cultural traditions and ecosystem, James created a sustainable brand more out of affinity than intention.
“When we’re looking at the ways in which we connect to land and connect to each other and connect to fabrics, it’s about remembering that this is very much part of our history and our lineage,” Drakeford said. “Colonists created an economic system in order to strip that away and create wealth and power and continue those systems throughout history.… It’s taken place over time. But there is a point where we have to understand that sustainability started with us.”
Survival has always been intrinsic to the Black experience, which has long meant fighting for the right to live in healthy environments. The environmental justice movement was largely born out of Black people bringing attention to the way their communities were disproportionately affected by pollutants. “You can’t talk about sustainability and making things better for our climate without also talking about racial justice. The two are hand in hand. A lot of the environmental issues are targeted in marginalized communities and where people of color live or where they have access to buy things,” said Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor in chief of The Cut, who wrote about the anti-Black landscape in fashion in a widely read 2018 story, and later cofounded the Black in Fashion Council with Sandrine Charles.
“What we’ve seen with a lot of companies is that they will make promises or put up a black square or put up a quote, and then there’s really not many changes as far as their diversity and inclusivity and equity in their workforce, in how they go about hiring and who they end up hiring and who’s promoted, who’s on their board, who’s an executive, and every opportunity in between,” Peoples Wagner said.
After the flood of BLM hashtags, empty promises, and black squares last spring and summer, fashion media veterans Chrissy Rutherford and Danielle Prescod each posted a video to Instagram addressing racism in the industry they know so well. The videos went viral, and Prescod and Rutherford were flooded with direct messages from brands and influencers who were persuaded by their message but clueless on how to move forward. A week later they formed 2BG Consulting, and now teach brands and influencers what it truly looks like to craft anti-racist identities and company cultures. That has often meant expanding brands’ definition of sustainability.
“We can’t just look at who’s in the factories and who’s creating the garments. It’s also the people in your corporate office or in your stores. It’s a 360 idea,” said Rutherford.
Everlane, another brand purported as a trailblazer in sustainable fashion, which says it is committed to “radical transparency,” had its own crisis last year, when a collective of anonymous former employees detailed racist experiences at the company. It led to an apology from the founder and CEO, Michael Preysman: “With the help of our community, I have come to realize how I have fallen short of addressing issues of institutional racism both inside the company and in how we present ourselves to the world,” the statement read, in part.
For Drakeford, such apologies do not go far enough. “I want to hear a CEO say something along the lines of, ‘My company was built and founded and we acquired generational wealth because of Black slaves and the expropriation of native lands,’” she said. “That’s where the initial principle of accountability has to take place. It’s starting at a very surface level. Like, ‘Oh, we’re being more inclusive, We have more Black faces, We care, We’re doing community work.’ When in actuality, accountability has to start at: ‘We are an international global corporate brand that was founded on these principles.’”