Fashion Revolution — Why the real revolution should be the decolonization of the fashion industry
Fashion Revolution week has recently come to an end for another year and I can’t help but feel annoyed at the whole ‘revolution’ thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fashion Revolution week and all that it stands for.
I just don’t think it’s…well…revolutionary.
You want a revolution you say? The most revolutionary act we can participate in as fashion lovers, designers, and brands is the long-overdue decolonization of the Fashion industry.
We’re staring into the face of a giant of an industry whose very foundations are rooted in colonial values, and if we hope to continue to call this planet home for many generations to come then we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than just ask brands ‘who made my clothes?’.
I’ve long felt frustrated with the sustainability/ethical movement that is currently taking place within the fashion industry. Frustrated because it fails to recognize the deeper issues at play here. Frustrated because it’s busy throwing ‘solutions’ at the ‘problem’ without ever pausing long enough to consider what the ‘problem’ really is. But most of all, I’m frustrated because the majority of the sustainability/ethical movement is a euro-centric/western response to a colonial system.
It fails to recognize that:
a) the mainstream fashion industry operates within a colonial system, and it’s this very system that has led us down the path of a highly unethical/ unsustainable present reality.
b) that in order to dismantle said systems the colonizer cannot be the decoloniser.
It’s long past time that there is some space made at the table of fashion for other than euro-centric/western viewpoints.
We are standing at a moment in time where our younger generations face the very real possibility of a future defined by climate change. And it’s only now, as the collective panic is spreading from those on the fringes to everyday people, that we begin to investigate the mess that’s been created. With major events like Rana Plaza that made us face off with our own humanity, and the realities of global warming looming, we’re beginning to see through the facade of fashion. It has been movements, like that of Fashion Revolution, that have mobilized the everyday fashion lovers to take action on the big issues. But we’ve yet to collectively investigate further than the symptoms.
“Colonialism is not a thing of the past, it’s a current economic reality. Time may have passed but the systems remain the same” -Celine Semaas
colonialism. noun. The policy or practice of a wealthy or powerful nation’s maintaining or extending its control over other countries, especially in establishing settlements or exploiting resources.
…There really couldn’t be a more accurate description of the fashion industry than that. An industry that continues to enslave millions worldwide throughout the fashion supply chain and profit off of the pollution and exploitation of earth’s natural resources.
Colonization is a complex and multi-layered beast that I can barely hope to cover in one short article. But we have to start somewhere, so, for what it’s worth, I will share my in-a-nut-shell view of it in the hopes that maybe we can start having some more considered dialogue when it comes to sustainability, ethics and the fashion industry as a whole.
That said I think it’s time for a very short history lesson:
-Mid 19th Century -The mass production of clothing begins
-Early 20th Century- Fashion becomes an established industry
This means a move away from tailor-made/homemade/handspun garments/fabrics to mass produced. This new model allowed a much faster and cheaper turnaround.
-1980s-’90s — Brands begin to move offshore- discovering ‘new horizons’ like China, India, and Bangladesh.
With the rise of the ‘middle class’ the west sets it sights eastward where it discovers it can capitalize on cheap labor done under exploitative conditions.
We now have a name for the beast: Fast Fashion and she’s all about speed and price
-Enter 90s exposure on sweatshops and slowly but surely we have the beginnings of very small but increasingly organized sustainability and ethics movement for the industry.
-April 24 2013 Rana Plaza becomes a catalyst for ‘consumer’ lead demand for more ethical working conditions, the movement is strengthened by The True Cost and the increasing connectivity afforded us by social media.
-Mid 2010’s Sustainability and ethical fashion movements begin to gain serious traction.
Sustainability now becomes the new horizon for brands to conquer…and the cycle of colonization begins again. Unless we stop it.
The fast fashion industry was birthed during the industrial revolution. During this time ‘progress’ was the word used to describe economic activities that allowed a very small (mostly white, male) percentage of the world to profit or live in comfort at the expense of, at the time, mostly women. But, as the west ‘progressed’ with the rise of the middle-class, production moved off-shore to non-western nations and profit is now made at the expense of its predominantly non-western supply chain.
With recent public demand for more ethical conditions within fashion supply chains ‘progress’ is now the word we use when brands are able to integrate sustainability alongside scalability.
The traditional colonial divide and conquer model of Christopher Columbus’’ days has evolved from the conquering of ‘undiscovered’ lands to, now in the fashion industry, the new horizons of sustainability. The industry continues to operate by exhausting one natural resource before moving onto the next, one low-cost labor country to the next, from one ‘sustainable solution’ to the next. Never investigating the underlying biased that favors the comfort and economic growth of a very select group of humanity.
It’s important to note here that there are two distinct sects of colonial attitudes within the fashion (and sustainable/ethical fashion) system. While it’s easy to recognize the Conqueror for what it is, the more subtle of the two attitudes is the Missionary.
How many slogan printed t-shirts, poorly designed shift dresses and block printed tote bags does the world really need? I’ve lost count of the number of ‘social enterprise’ brands I’ve come across who, with the best of intentions, begin a line of products in order to fund a social good cause. There is a distinct difference between well-designed products made in partnership with highly skilled artisans, and what too many of the social enterprise brands I’ve come across have done. Which is to produce poorly made products marketed with the hope that a well written, heartfelt story will sell them. While there is a place for social enterprise within the fashion system there is no room for poorly designed products in our current climate. The missionary complex of these brands does more harm than good by clogging up the system and failing to understand the deeper complexities of those they are supposed to be serving.
Equally as harmful are the eco-brands who are creating ‘sustainable collections’ in response to a sustainability crisis. Producing new garments that, whether made of a sustainable fiber or not, demand still more from the already stretched resources of mother earth.
The common theme among those with a ‘missionary’ complex is that their underlying guiding purpose as a brand is to act as a savior for an environmental or social good cause.
Add to this the current discourse which paints a very graphic picture of the victims of the system, the perpetrators, and the consumers. Movements like Fashion Revolution Week allow the consumer to lead the demand for more ethical working conditions on behalf of the supply chain. While I agree that this is an important step, I also believe that perspective is important here. These responses are still operating within a hierarchy and the main benefactor is actually the consumer who feels as if they participated in something. There is still no systemic change taking place as a result of this movement and it further perpetuates the cycle of colonialism in that it fails to address the underlying issues. FRW allows us as the dominant culture to simply have a philanthropic response to the plight of the minority.
If we don’t dismantle the systems of colonialism and make space for there to be a diversity of self-represented responses, from all corners of the industry, the sustainability movement now becomes the new missionary movement.
It’s here that we stand, teetering on the edge of catastrophe, where we have an opportunity to take a good hard look at the systems we default to. If we don’t pause long enough to learn from the past we are in danger of repeating it. It is vitally important to recognize our operating systems for what they are and learn from our history. It is crucial that at this moment in time our discourse around sustainability shifts from being solely solution based to investigate the deeper core issues that have lead us here. There is a fundamental imbalance of representation in the industry. Not only on the catwalk and in media, but also of values present in the industry. This has lead to the exploitation of Mother Earth, the natural world around us, and millions worldwide.
Just as eco-systems require diversity to thrive, our fashion eco-system also requires diversity to thrive. Diversity of values, approaches, cultural representations and solutions.
Recently I have heard quiet whispering on the fringes of the industry speaking of the need to consider the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures. But, as we begin to shift our focus and look towards indigenous and ALL other-than-western ways of being in fashion, and beyond, it’s vitally important that these cultures are self-represented. It’s not enough for western brands, academics, and creatives to read about them in a book, write research papers on them, or take off to the jungle for a few weeks in order to bring back some shiny new found knowledge to be used in this revolution. This is called appropriation, and as we all know, the industry already has a long and colorful history of appropriation…let it stop here. It’s time to sit down, shut up, and make space at the table for diversity to lead the way.
Without decolonization of the industry, sustainability is simply the newest frontier waiting to be conquered by brands in their commitment to ensuring the continued comfort and “progress” of their western kingdoms.
The issues here aren’t economic. It’s not about simply helping brands to identify the economic and environmental benefits of changing the way they do business. The issue is a systemic acceptance of the hierarchy of human value. These systems, founded in colonial values, will always prioritize western comfort over the human and environmental cost to it’s non-western ‘supply chain’. Addressing centuries of bias is far more complex than simply implementing a living wage or environmental policies. It requires the dismantling of the foundations. A rebuilding of a new industry that is co-created and rooted in diversity.
Moving forward the only way we can begin to dismantle the beast is to first face off with it. To acknowledge uncomfortable truths, question EVERYTHING and identify the areas where we as designers, creatives and industry are operating within the confines of an outdated system.
Amie Berghan is a co-founder at Sustainability 5.0, she is an indigenous (Maori) creative currently navigating holistic sustainability in fashion.