Four founders on why sustainable fashion must include racial equality


Fashion brands’ sustainability goals typically focus on efforts to reduce carbon emissions and incorporate more recycled materials into their collections. But experts argue these initiatives only scrape the surface of what fashion needs to become fully sustainable. The industry — built on the efforts of textile workers, the vast majority of whom are people of colour working in India, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam — must understand and address the link between racial equality and sustainability.

Inequality for workers in fashion’s supply chain has been brought to light, and exacerbated, by the pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement launched a pattern of workers speaking out on behalf of their treatment at mainstream brands, many of which have spoken out in support of the movement. “Do these brands really care or are they merely looking to capitalise off of trending hashtags?” says sustainability activist Nayna Florence. “We cannot talk about sustainability without discussing racism.”

 Tala prides itself on providing affordable and on-trend clothing made from 92 per cent upcycled materials. © Grace Beverley Tala

Fashion needs to focus on its impact on the planet: the industry produces 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. However, without this commitment extending to people working in the supply chain, brands can never be fully sustainable. The drive from fashion brands to find the lowest production prices and the highest profit margins comes at the expense of garment worker’s wages, rights and safety. Four sustainable brands, Bare Boutique, Katundu, By Rotation and Tala, have made strides in recognising how unsustainable practices disproportionately impact people of colour and have sought to tackle this though incorporating sustainable practices right through from production to consumption. Here is what other brands can learn from their approaches.

Hire and promote people of colour

Kara Kupe, the Indigenous Maori designer behind Bare Boutique, views sustainability as a necessity. The Bali-based non-traditional factory setting promotes ethical employment by providing fair wages and placing emphasis on slow production. Kupe argues that the exploitation of workers, particularly Black and brown people, forced into poor working conditions, “needs to be acknowledged as the most unsustainable practice in fashion”.

“Our bodies are often problematised in the mainstream representations of us,” she says. “It is powerful to have an editorial of Indigenous femmes and to showcase self-representation that celebrates our strength and our beauty as Indigenous peoples,” who are particularly impacted by climate change.

Katundu has provided career opportunities for over 50 local women on Likoma Island. © Francois d’Elbee/Katundu

Tala founder Grace Beverley argues that hiring employees of colour at various levels within an organisation and giving them opportunities to contribute to decision-making — in addition to using more Black and brown models — creates a more positive impact on society than ticking diversity boxes. Fifty per cent of the company’s hires within the past year have been women of colour, and its managerial roles are 25 per cent Black.

Eliminate production waste

Suzie Lightfoot, founder of Malawi-based textile and jewellery brand Katundu, shifted the focus of her business to reusing materials such as old bottles and tin cans to combat this problem. “We all need to take a step back, open our eyes and realise the opportunities right in front of us,” she says. In Malawi, limited disposal facilities result in streets and dry river beds clogged with litter that leads to health concerns. Lisa Njakale and Phillirani Mwase, the current managers of the business, pride themselves on Katundu’s commitment to combating the waste issue in Malawi while producing high quality, statement pieces.

Eshita Kabra Davies, founder of the UK’s leading peer-to-peer sustainable fashion rental app By Rotation. © Eshita Kabra Davies/By Rotation

Based in an area where employment opportunities are scarce, Njakale, Mwase and Lightfoot believe that it is the company’s responsibility to provide “fair and empowering” employment. Katundu pays fair wages and provides a loan scheme, medical support and educational fees for their staff’s children.

Reduce consumption

Eshita Kabra Davies founded the UK-based peer-to-peer sustainable fashion rental app By Rotation to prolong the life of quality items already in circulation and avoid excessive waste.

“Ethnic minorities have been at the mercy of systemic racism within the fashion industry,” Kabra Davies says. “Even in a fashion capital such as London, it’s that much harder for aspiring BAME creatives to get a foot in the door, thanks to barriers to entry like unpaid internships.”

Transparency throughout these processes is an essential step in ending exploitation and eliminating greenwashing, says Carry Somers, founder of industry activist organisation Fashion Revolution. “We need transparency to be irreversibly entwined with every thread of every garment that will ever be made,” Somers says.

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