The Connection Between Fashion and Racism
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has signaled a wake-up call to America that racial injustice and systemic racism lies at the foundation of our country’s systems and institutions. Reform and equity are long overdue.
Here at RoHo we aim to continue to educate ourselves on these issues and the perpetuation of racism and anti-Blackness, especially in the fashion industry and especially that of “fast fashion”. Fast fashion is used by many popular retail brands who purposefully outsource manufacturing to developing countries in order to mass-produce cheap, unethical clothing while paying their workers minimally.
Fast fashion depends on consumers turning a blind eye to the unethical treatment of others.
The fashion industry as a whole employs one-third of the world’s population. Of those workers, it’s estimated that 80-95% of textile workers are women of color. Countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines are pawns in this system of cyclical racial oppression. Many of these governments have unenforced child labor laws and labor laws in general.
Many Western retail companies take advantage of cheap workers to maximize profits, creating a culture where retail brands are incentivized to exploit at inhumane levels. This is the cycle of poverty, abuse, and waste, especially for those living in the global south. The entire system relies on the disenfranchisement of the workers who produce the kind of graphic tees that say “Girl Boss” or “Black Lives Matter.” It is wholly dependent on discrimination and racial oppression, while creating some of the wealthiest people in the world. The owner of H&M, for example, is the 28th richest person in the world.
In contrast, for each garment made, the worker who makes that article of clothing receives no more than 1% of the garment’s final worth. Bangladeshi workers are often paid less than a dollar an hour. An Oxfam report found that the CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands will earn in four days what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. 25% of Bangladeshi women garment workers reported some kind of abuse at work. Forced labor, human trafficking and child labor can all be tied to the fast fashion because of the lack of worker’s rights and proper regulations. Some equate this work to modern slavery.
Western consumers’ desire for low, affordable prices and the normalization of the availability of cheap clothing encourages this unethical consumption. Retail brands are culpable of the dehumanization and oppression in their manufacturing, but so are we as consumers by participating in this system.
Racism isn’t the only driver of fast fashion. But it does allow us to justify and accept the exploitation of black and brown garment workers who we don’t afford the same humanity as the people in our local communities. It is an issue of othering, of failing to give the same human rights to the people who make our clothes based on race and geographical distance.
Othering lies at the base of racism. It’s the separation and differences between us that allows us to treat others differently. To put it simply, it’s an us vs. them complex.
Lack of Diversity in Fashion
Besides corrupt production lines, fashion companies are infamous for their lack of diversity in their upper echelons. Black executive and board members are few and far between. Black models are tokenized and stereotyped in advertising, and there is little to no opportunities for leadership positions in these companies.
Erica Lovett, director of inclusion and diversity at publisher Condé Nast, put it simply, "Until fashion leaders across all categories become more diverse, we will continue to only progress at the surface level."
What To Do
There are actions we, consumers, can all take to begin buying clothes more consciously.
The PayUp movement demands fashion brands honor their commitments to outsourced workers. Similarly, the Fashion Revolution and Fair Wear Foundation are fighting brands to treat garment workers with respect. The Good On You website is an app that rates fashion brands on how ethical they are.
Sign up to black-owned businesses newsletters. Ask yourself questions like, “Is this brand making efforts to become more sustainable?” and “Are the garment workers working in safe environments and receiving a fair wage?” Above all, start to question whether it’s really worth buying.
Purchase clothes from brands, where they are transparent about their practices and manufacturing lines. Buy consciously, ethically, and anti-racist.
One of the most high-profile Black models working today, Adesuwa Aighewi, sums it up: "These companies have been around long enough. This is not the first time Black people have complained about the fashion industry; this isn't the first revolution. Something's got to give."