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Representation and the marginalisation of People of Colour in the fashion industry

By Amber Rochette, Partnerships Lead at Sustainable Fashion Week.

Sustainability is becoming a popular buzzword in the fashion industry, and companies are attempting to make more environmentally friendly decisions. However, in the process, communities of colour are still failing to be acknowledged whilst remaining the most vulnerable to the negative environmental impacts caused by fast fashion.

Sustainability was defined in the Brundtland Report as ‘meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. By this definition, we cannot do good for the planet if we ignore people and equality too.

Fast fashion benefits from systemic racism

Throughout history, labour from People of Colour has been continuously de-valued and undermined. The economic model of fast fashion has (and always has) exploited indigenous resources and labour leaving the global south dependant on western trade.

Fast fashion companies have been able to benefit financially from systematic racism, with many companies still being able to get away with not paying garment workers adequate living wages and failing to provide safe working conditions.

There is a disproportionate impact of environmental hazards caused by fast fashion on people of colour. Garment workers in Africa and Asia are being exposed to toxic fumes, polluted air, and contaminated water-systems from run-off chemical dyes.

80% of textile workers worldwide are Women of Colour[i]. Many garment workers are not paid more than £20 a week which is barely a fraction of the billions that we spend in the industry every year. For an industry that would quite literally not exist without people of colour, why is it that they bear the heaviest burden?

Is the industry truly committed to equality?

From boardroom to runway, there is a distinct lack of diversity in fashion. The industry has a long history of misappropriating black cultures and tokenising black models. Performative activism is rife under the pressure to appear as fair and just without necessarily being truly committed to the cause of equality.

As an industry that is somewhat heavily reliant on People of Colour, it is not often we see the intergenerational skills from diverse cultures shine through the thousands of t-shirts pushed through factories every day. Many invaluable skills have been exploited, appropriated, or simply forgotten about – and this needs to change.

Join the movement for change

Take a look and join in some of the Sustainable Fashion Week community events happening across the city and online from 11-19 September. From clothes swaps to fashion shows, mending workshops to pattern cutting, there a wide range of events encouraging skills sharing, upcycling, and re-generating with what we already have.

Fashion is one thing that is relatable to everyone on this planet. Using clothes to express our individuality and celebrate different cultures is something that we all have in common. We need to change how this industry marginalises and exploits People of Colour, whilst minimising the harm caused to the environment and indigenous communities too.

We all get dressed every day – so we all have a role to play in changing the industry for the better.

To learn more about these issues, get some tickets to the Sustainable Fashion Week hub on 11 and 12 September at the M-Shed, where Black & Green Ambassador Olivia Sweeney will be chairing two panel discussions on representation and the marginalisation of People of Colour in the fashion industry. Find out more and get involved here