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FSW Guest Perspectives - Forced Limitations: How Black Fashion Consumers and Producers are Uniquely Positioned for Sustainability
Essays by Friends & Staff of It's A Working Title LLC
Sustainability remains at the forefront of the fashion industry’s aim toward a healthier fashion system. Considering this business is responsible for 8-10% of the world’s carbon dioxide output, much of the discourse around the topic focuses on its environmental efforts. However, the social and cultural forces that have helped contribute to sustainable fashion practice remain underexplored, particularly regarding race. A surface-level approach to this topic would likely categorize it under the “social” component of sustainability. Indeed, this is an easily identifiable starting point for a long-marginalized pillar. But race continues to play an integral role in each pillar of sustainability; economic, social, and environmental.
One of the reasons why we should reassess how we engage with discussing sustainability is because it’s been steered by the dominant culture. In other words, it’s been whitewashed. The goals and considerations of fashion sustainability prioritize white consumers and designers, their concerns, approaches, practices, etc. An effect of this whitewashing is that sustainability never became an explicit preoccupation for Black fashion consumers. A history of systemic oppression suggests why this may not be their priority. Black communities remain economically, politically, and socially disenfranchised, especially in the global west. Racism evidences this empirically, and fashion is a repeat offender. This inevitably impacts consumer culture, wherein consumers’ lived experiences mediate their engagement with commerce.
How has this shaped how Black consumers engage with sustainability? They don’t seem to buy into it compared to their more privileged counterparts. The pervasiveness of systemic oppression and the only recent attention fashion gives to them deem those issues more critical than double-checking the fiber content of a t-shirt. When police brutality, by which Black communities are disproportionately impacted, persists, what’s truly more important? Consumers’ everyday lives continue to shape their consumption habits. Perhaps the othering of this consumer segment from the discourse further complicates their lack of concern, with class playing center stage. Scholars and industry practitioners alike have explored this intersection. When fast fashion consumption (for which the industry can blame its emissions) is often critiqued, the solution is to “buy less and better.” And while that is good practice, framing it this way isn’t particularly effective for the socioeconomically underprivileged. That line of thought is aspirational at best and downright offensive at worst.
Black people have lacked the necessary resources that would allow them to “buy better.” Thus, that proposal discounts this reality. Nonetheless, this reality is also why Black consumers have a storied yet implicit relationship with sustainability. If you think about it, sustainable consumption encourages us to forego something(s). Black consumers know this all too well. The idea of “making something out of nothing” is embedded in their history. This has been modeled by taking exceptional care of what they could afford. The late editor Andre Leon Talley frequently spoke about how well his grandmother cared for their luxuries growing up. Saving their nicest clothes for church, hang-drying garments, and distinguishing "good” clothes from “play” clothes is sustainable and was common in Black families. Dress practices like passing clothes down and often making them are a part of a rich cultural heritage that, perhaps unintendedly, overlaps with the three pillars. This dates to slavery and remains prevalent. It’s also worth noting how they’ve managed to use vintage to trace Black American history.
Similarly, Black designers have also influenced sustainable fashion through a lack of resources. Historic quilters and dressmakers exemplify this model quite well. And contemporary designers are yielding equal influence. It’s been documented that Black fashion designers are vastly under-resourced on many levels. Luxury retailers have refused to carry designers due to prescribed “aesthetic preferences,” many designers are self-funded, and some have had to close their doors when crises emerge. White fashion brands, at large, don’t have this same relationship to making or entrepreneurship. This is why structures like the Black In Fashion Council, Fifteen Percent Pledge, and the Black British Artist Grant exists. There’s a strong parallel between consumption and production happening within this demographic.
Thankfully, people like Aja Barber and Venesa Coger bring a uniquely Black perspective to the sustainability discourse, but the fashion industry could do more to encourage Black buy-in. It requires them to be critical of their history and the one they aim towards. Shifting organizational structures to include more Black executives will do this naturally. If “the table” is where these high-level talks are happening, having executives of color at the table will give a voice to their community and the brand’s consumers. Also, studies show that diversity is good for a business's bottom line. Additionally, Gen z is considering a company’s corporate social responsibility more. This intensified in the summer of 2020 when many fashion brands' commitments to anti-racist practice were challenged in light of the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
For a company to consider its social imperatives actively and authentically is to signify interest in the consumer and the communities they belong to. A recent analysis of the fashion industry’s promise toward more DEI suggests they were merely performative.
A collaboration like Thebe Magugu x Christian Dior exemplifies the convergence of heritage brands with Black design talent, as did Gucci x Dapper Dan. The general theme here is that those at the top of the fashion food chain must give up something for Black consumers to give in. As the desire for consumer-brand transparency grows, social media is a great way to communicate what’s happening internally (with consistency and a long-term commitment in mind).
To be in the fashion business is to also be in the people’s business. A critical reexamination of who and what sustainability has stood for is necessary for engagement across consumer segments.
Julian Randall is a fashion researcher and consultant with deep experience in luxury fashion and cultural studies. He is a PhD candidate in Luxury Fashion and Clothing at The Manchester Metropolitan University where his research aims to broaden understandings of Black style and fashion narratives transnationally. He explores ideas around people and clothes at the nexus of luxury, fashion, identity, and popular culture.
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