Sustainability in fashion relies on embracing diversity

BY RACHEL CERNANSKY



Failing to overcome internal systemic racism in the fashion industry limits career opportunities for Black employees and alienates customers. It also shortchanges brands’ efforts to reduce impacts on the environment.


“All of these issues are connected,” says Aja Barber, a sustainability consultant and advocate. “If the humans where you manufacture don’t have clean drinking water, then it doesn’t matter if you’re using less water in your manufacturing.”


Countries where the majority of clothing is manufactured — as well as where much of it ends up at the end of its life — are among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change, and many grapple with contaminated or insufficient water supplies and other environmental ills. Since the pandemic began, a number of brands saying they stand with the Black community have left suppliers in Bangladesh and Cambodia in millions of dollars in debt and unable to pay their workers, who are overwhelmingly women of colour. In wealthier countries, it’s communities of colour who tend to live in the most polluted areas — including the thousands of garment workers who make clothes in Los Angeles.


“If you’ve got issues in your supply chain, if you can’t ensure your workers are treated well, then which lives matter?” Barber asked, referencing the Black Lives Matter campaign.


Research has shown that companies with more diverse leadership have better environmental compliance reporting, in addition to stronger financial returns. Having people of colour on boards also makes companies more competitive and better governed, studies from Utah State University have found. The onus is on the fashion industry to change, advocates say, even sustainably focused businesses who are mostly white.


“A lack of racial diversity and gender diversity is actually hurting organisations in specific and measurable ways,” says Christy Glass, interim director at Utah State University’s Center for Intersectional Gender Studies & Research, who has conducted dozens of studies on the impacts of corporate leadership diversity on organisational functioning. “There are incredibly broad and deep benefits to having people of colour on the board and across leadership,” including better innovation and environmental reporting.

Rae Price, technical designer at Tonlé, works with Ty, head of printing, on new hand-painted designs in the Tonlé workshop. © Hannah Tabert / Tonlé


As companies rush to make fixes, she warns against brands putting a person of colour in leadership or hiring a diversity and inclusion officer and thinking their work is done.

“When they’re appointed to these highly visible roles, and they’re the only one, they experience intense scrutiny, hypervisibility, very severe performance pressures and burden of doubt. Oftentimes they lack the support of the leadership team. They’re often seen as the outsider,” says Glass. It requires a deep-rooted cultural change that’s integrated into the company, she says.


Rachel Faller, founder of zero-waste brand Tonlé, says having a diverse team (she’s the only white person at the company) is pivotal to their work on sustainability. “Our core leadership team is based in Cambodia, and our team is much more directly connected to the impact of climate change and pollution,” she says. “While I'm often the one writing on social media, those views are shaped by people at Tonlé who have more first-hand experience with the issues we are trying to solve.” Faller was grateful last week to have Rae Price, Tonlé’s technical designer, guide her towards supporting Black-owned businesses and promoting Black educators.


“If you’ve got issues in your supply chain, if you can’t ensure your workers are treated well, then which lives matter?”

Not all brands responded that way; Price and other Black fashion influencers noticed. “As a Black woman, it has been incredibly disappointing to see brands decide that now is a good time to have a voice in this conversation about racial injustices,” says Price. “They have been complicit in structural racism through their silence and in some cases, directly and systematically suppressing Black voices and excluding Black faces.”


Tapestry, which owns Coach and Kate Spade — and is one of the only major fashion groups to be led by a Black man, Jide Zeitlin — has gone farther than most in the last week and committed to convening social justice, legal and corporate representatives to develop a long-term plan to combat systemic inequality. Last year, it established corporate responsibility goals for 2025, including building diversity into brand leadership teams. It aims for leadership to better reflect its full employee make-up, which was 44 per cent ethnically diverse while the leadership team stood at 21 per cent. Few other luxury brands have been so public about their goals and diversity make-up.


Black sustainable fashion advocates have named only a small number of brands who are getting it right: namely, Tonlé, Proclaim and Matter Prints. Leah Thomas, who works with businesses to integrate intersectional environmentalism and social justice into their mission statements and strategies, also names Girlfriend Collective and Outdoor Voices, two activewear brands. For others to adopt it, sustainability as a concept needs to be more inclusive, she says.

Racism, like climate change and pollution, is a deeply pervasive and systemic problem, say advocates. Brands need to commit to change, but they need to be prepared for that change to take a lot of work. “You can only be inauthentic for so long. So my advice, since most well-known brands have a racial deficit: take accountability and do the hard work,” says sustainable fashion consultant Dominique Drakeford.


The efforts of brands to improve their sustainable supply chains need to be more inclusive too, including its impact on minority groups, says Céline Semaan, CEO of the social and environmental foundation Slow Factory. Using organic cotton is laudable, for example, but not if you don’t ensure decent wages for farmers. “We can’t measure it from one angle only,” Semaan says. “Anything that is addressed in a silo, with a microscope, is not something we believe is going to drive global change. It’s not going to scale at all.”


Even sustainable fashion brands need to have a rethink, according to Tonle’s Price. “Just because the sustainable fashion industry is more conscious, does not mean that it is not complicit [in] the systems and behaviours that have systematically suppressed and oppressed Black and brown communities throughout history,” says Price. Conversations about race have to involve criminal and environmental justice, access to education and housing and more — not that those are all problems a fashion brand can fix, but it can’t ignore them either.

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