Below is the paper, “Green is (NOT) the New Black: The Role of Sustainable Fashion in Historically Black Communities”, that I presented at LIM’s Fashion Then & Now conference on October 20th, 2017.
Good afternoon. My name is Mikaila Brown. I’d like to thank the organizers of this conference, LIM, and my fellow panelists. It is an honor to be given a platform to tackle this topic and I look forward to the discussions I hope this presentation will inspire.
My initial intention in preparing for this paper was to conduct an anthropological examination of sustainable brands in the West Harlem area. For the last year, my company, The Common Thread Project, has been deeply investigating the historical, political, and cultural background of prevalent fashion trends in that area. My early searches for sustainable fashion brands in Harlem yielded very little, but I did come across an article that highlighted the local African artisans who make and sell wooden and metal jewelry and Africa print dresses on Harlem’s 116th and 125th streets.
My first thought was a question. “Are these products sustainable?”. But then I realized that they fit many of the necessary components to be considered ethical and sustainable:
* Many of the materials used are eco-friendly
* Their production contributes minimal to no harm to the environment
* Almost everything is hand made by one or a few local artisans, which is the exact opposite of “fast fashion”
* And these products are woven into the cultural fabric of their community and not only reflect the aesthetic of said community but also economically feed back into it.
So why did it surprise me that these fashion products could be categorized as “sustainable?”. I realized my skepticism was fueled by my own preconception that a sustainable brand meant overpriced products, and a white-owned business that markets a cause to be supported. To be clear, when referring to the terms “sustainable” or “ethical” throughout this paper, my definition is way less myopic. In this paper, I am referring to brands committed to how fashion products are made, encompassing everything from environmental issues like how the cotton was grown to social issues like how the garment workers are treated and paid. And while sustainable brands come in all shapes and sizes as we’ve seen and heard today, I am speaking specifically about ethical brands whose production is based in nonWestern communities, but who are owned and managed by Westerners.
Ok. So in examining my own misconceptions of what constitutes “sustainable fashion”, my paper topic began to shift. I began to critically analyze how race impacts how sustainable fashion is defined, understood and operated.
The fashion industry has not been insulated from the current political climate and the conversations—and sometimes shouting matches—we’re having around race and representation in our country today. We’re hearing increased calls for more diversity across the industry—on the runway, in corporate fashion boardrooms, and in major design houses. Conspicuously absent from these conversations has been a critical analysis of the racial dynamics inherent to sustainable and ethical fashion brands. While ethical fashion has positioned itself within the fashion industry as implicitly committed to addressing dynamics of race with its focus on non-Western artisans, the relationship of these brands with a predominately white and Western consumer base has not been examined thoroughly. By focusing their efforts on traditional environmental issues, many ethical fashion brands are ignoring the systemic implications of privilege and power within its own industry.
This paper seeks to address this shortcoming in two ways. I first investigate how race is understood and expressed within the ethical fashion industry. I argue that although race is rarely explicitly discussed, it is inherent to this industry’s typical business model. My second goal is to demonstrate how various forms of racism contribute to the imaging and messaging created by some sustainable fashion brands. I will emphasize the danger of white privilege within these spaces, and how it directly undercuts the exact mission of these brands.
The typical demographic of buyers of sustainable fashion has often been described as white, wealthy and Western. Women with higher education and income levels are believed to be more internationally and environmentally conscious, and as a result, more willing to channel this awareness into patronizing sustainable brands. In many cases, the brands that they support provide opportunities for non-Western artisans by creating a global market for their locally produced, handcrafted pieces. These brands are also often white owned and managed.
But what is the role of black communities, as both creator and consumer, within this white-dominated fashion ecosystem? What are the effects of white ownership and consumerism on black-crafted products? Where does local, black culture fit within the sustainable fashion space, which is predominately characterized as a movement focused on environmental sustainability and economic justice for poor artisans in developing countries?
For the last few years, there has been the pervasive theme of “Green is the New Black”, meaning that sustainability is the newest megatrend in fashion. I argue that within black communities, sustainability is not a new fashion trend. “Green” has always been “Black”, in that the fashion background of black people is based in a long history of African and African-diasporic vendors selling one of kind, hand crafted, fashion products within their own communities. In fact, this history of handcrafted articles of clothing has long been a black cultural tradition.
African fashion can be traced as far back as Egypt in the early 2000’s B.C.E. In West Africa, woven fiber pieces dating back to the ninth century have been found in Nigeria. This sartorial tradition continued during the colonial and Antebellum periods, where enslaved blacks pursued the right to express themselves using fashion against pragmatic, customary, and legal restrictions. In the face of this extensive fashion history, why are fashion products produced by local black communities only categorized as sustainable when the customer base is rich, white and Western? What I am arguing here is that it is problematic that sustainable fashion often fails to place value on hand-made, fashion products being shared between local black community members. This industry fails to acknowledge that products should still be considered sustainable even when made by the local community for the local community.
To further complicate this dynamic, in many cases, how these products are marketed to a white audience is often rooted in poverty porn. The imaging of these products and their makers are often steeped in typical tropes of developed and developing, Third World and First World, Global North and Global South. Monolithic archetypes of poor, brown women unable to provide for their families and largely dependent on white patronage for survival plague representations within the sustainable fashion space. These workers are presented as voiceless, marginalized and oppressed by their current social circumstances. However, I argue that in presenting these images without full context or complexity, some sustainable fashion brands become exactly like the oppressors it purports to be fighting. By using Western tropes as the lens in which to measure the progress of these local fashion producers, sustainable brands are actively participating in a kind of ‘universalizing’ that denies these artisan’s full life experience.
Another dimension of this messaging of “helping a needy non-White artisan” is that it acts as a smokescreen to distract from the fact that these white-owned brands enjoy economic advantages simply by being white-owned. By steeping their mission in being ethical, white brands have exonerated themselves of racist tendencies, all the while ignoring their investment in white privilege. However, white privilege abounds in the ease in which white brands assume ownership over the artisan’s creativity, the product, and future opportunities. Within sustainable fashion circles, there is also a woeful ignorance of how this white privilege comes at the expense of black artisans and their agency in shaping their own messaging, and bearing the full fruits of their labor.
The sustainable fashion industry also runs the risk of cultural appropriation. And by cultural appropriation, I mean the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand the complex nuances of this culture. This appropriation of African culture, and its Diaspora, serves to marginalize and devalue the effort and impact of great artisans and their creativity. By focusing exclusively on the crafters and largely ignoring their wider cultural context, the sustainable fashion industry neglects addressing its privilege under the guise of more equitable labor practices. An authentic, true ethos of sustainable fashion must include being cautious of co-opting and fetishizing locally produced fashion products and their makers. One way to achieve this is to resist the hegemony of thinking fashion can only being considered sustainable when the consumer base is culturally white.
Being a part of the ethical fashion industry demands conversations about more than just working conditions. Identifying beautiful products and providing economic opportunities for local artisans are also not enough. Ethical brands must commit to doing the work of being culturally competent. In-depth anthropological research should be undertaken to understand the values, culture and customs of the local communities these brands represent.
To achieve this, community members should be engaged early and often. Their history and politics should be thoroughly explored. Ethical brands must actively work with the community’s main information sources, whether it be a local church or an existing community organization. These sources should have the respect and trust of the community and have a proven track record of successfully working within the community. Finally, ethical brands must work to groom and promote local artisans to be major stakeholders in the brand, whether it be as managers or executives. By offering high level opportunities to local artisans, ethical brands avoid the risk of using these artisans purely for financial gain. By providing local artisans with the opportunity to participate in the marketing and messaging of their own products, ethical brands are making their involvement within these communities more authentic and less exploitative. Authentic interest and engagement with an artisan’s culture will assist in resisting the seductive pull of a Western savior complex.
It is not my intent, with this presentation, to generalize the sustainable fashion industry. There are many sustainable and ethical brands who are already using anthropological techniques, like participant observation, to provide an equitable platform for their artisans. The co-founders of the brand Victoria Road touched on their approach in a recent interview with the blog StyleWise. They said, “They start with a lot, we just want to help them build with it. It’s so important for me to listen, to just be quiet, and the thing that enables us to do that – and I think where we feel really strongly – is having local people work with local people.” This encapsulates the brand’s fight against sentimentalism and sensationalism. By actively listening to the community and hearing what they value, this brand avoids the risk of gravitating towards an aesthetic simply because it is “exotic”.
Another person promoting cultural equity within the ethical fashion industry is Dominique Drakeford, founder of Drakeford PR and chief curator of the website MelinaninAss.com. Dominique specializes in written content, creative direction, styling and brand consulting for sustainable fashion and beauty brands. Her PR work focuses on changing mainstream narratives on what sustainability looks like in practice, with an emphasis on giving a voice to women of color. Additionally, MelaninASS.com is a revolutionary platform that discusses the issues and celebrates the success of communities of color in sustainable fashion, green beauty and wellness spaces. Her many articles and blog posts hold the fashion industry accountable to do more for the communities and cultures that it represents.
I will end by acknowledging that this presentation was less an examination of existing research or ethnographic findings and more the beginnings of a conversation that will hopefully spawn future academic exploration. In fact, when I started this thought exercise, I began with a scan of existing research and was disappointed to find few substantive discussion of these issues. It is my hope that academics will begin to research more critically the intersections between race and class as they apply to the sustainable fashion industry. Conferences, such as this one, serve as proof that academia plays an important role in its development. While ethical brands may be as diverse as the communities they represent, common anthropological tools could be an asset to their business practices. Finally, representations of women of color, both as fashion creators and consumers, must transcend just tokenism, especially by the brands that propose to promote them.