Racism and Sustainability in Fashion

Whitney McGuire
6 min readJul 30, 2020


(originally self-published in 2018)

Fashion Revolution Week has come and gone. A lot of manifestos, pledges, and educational actions were made to give more truth to the power of the sustainable fashion movement (sustainability in every industry, really). But missing from virtually all of these declarations for change was the acknowledgement of race, specifically racism which is deeply entrenched in the issues calling forth the need for increased sustainability measures in the first place. Racism is the least sustainable system we have created and perpetuated as a human species and there is no way humanity will survive without shifting its practices towards sustainability. So why the blatant omission, in the age of empowered, glaring white supremacy?

Definitions, especially in the age of “isms,” hashtags, and blanket statements, are crucial. Let’s start by defining what sustainability is. In short, according to Google, sustainability is the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance, as in, “the pursuit of global environmental sustainability.” A more comprehensive definition of sustainability provided by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 provides that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Essentially, sustainability is about being selfless, to a certain extent. Or at least it’s about being aware of how one’s self impacts one’s environment and whether one’s practices in the present create value to support future generations.

Next, let’s attempt to define racism. The elementary version (thanks, Google) is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” A deeper take is that racism includes the systemic perpetuation of exclusion and dehumanization of historically oppressed races. Racism looks like many things. It can look like a racial slur being hurled at a passerby, a joke about a historically oppressed culture, calling the cops on any black person who has without a doubt not committed a crime, erecting prisons for the sole purpose of reducing the population of black males, using state sanctioned violence as a way to terrorize entire historically oppressed communities, attempting to justify these acts in the name of egalitarianism/all lives mattering, or not correcting the behaviors of others perpetuating these acts, etc. Racism has plenty of sub categories, all of which blur together. It’s a spectrum. On one end there is white supremacy, the KKK, etc. on the other there are white liberal “activists,” many of which happen to be environmentalists as well. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum, the truth is we all participate in the system of racism to some extent, either as the oppressed or as the oppressor (intended or not). Which is why it baffles me that this topic is usually omitted from sustainability agendas and conversations.

Below are the 2015 Global Sustainability Goals for businesses and organizations according to the United Nations.

It’s very clear that eliminating — or at least reducing the effects of — racism is not a global goal for sustainable development, yet almost every goal in this chart has a deep complicated relationship with racism which results in mostly black and brown people all over the world being adversely affected by the issues identified. For any sustainable agenda to be truly successful, we need to acknowledge and eliminate the elephant in this (global) room. If we fail to identify the malignancy, all restorative measures will be in vain and no real sustainable value will be created.

According to Russ Vernon-Jones, “[t]he underlying ideology of racism is that some groups of people can be defined as ‘other’ and labeled ‘inferior’ by a dominant group that sees itself as ‘superior.’” He further explains:

[a]s the age of colonization began in the 16th and 17th centuries, white Europeans developed the ideology of racism to justify the theft of resources, degradation of the land, the enslavement of people, and genocide directed at dark-skinned people and indigenous people all over the world. Greed was the primary driver of these practices. Disregard for the effects of these practices on the targeted populations was (and is) central to the operation of the system. Practices and enterprises today that contribute to the degradation of the environment and to climate change are rooted in the same features — greed, a feeling of being “superior” to those most affected, and prioritizing one’s own profits and comfort as completely legitimate, regardless of the effects on others or on the environment. Racism has long provided a justification for such perspectives, as enacted through colonization, genocide and slavery, extending into the present.

For instance, according to author D.N. Pellow:

Black Lives Matter challenges the scourge of state-sanctioned violence…with a primary emphasis on police brutality and mass incarceration…If we think of environmental racism as an extension of those state-sanctioned practices — in other words a form of authoritarian control over bodies, space, and knowledge systems — then we can more effectively theorize it as a form of state violence, a framework that is absent from most [environmental justice] scholarship”

Let’s start with food. One of the most clear examples of environmental racism is hunger or “food insecurity.” One in seven (1 in 7) Americans struggle with hunger. According to the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute, in 2014, 48.1 million Americans were classified as food insecure, translating to 14% of households in the U.S. One in four (1 in 4) African American households were classified as food insecure and more than one in five (> 1 in 5) Latino households were classified as food insecure, compared to one in ten (1 in 10) white households. Latino and African American households are twice as likely to suffer from hunger than their white counterparts. Additionally, landfills, water pollution, and other environmental violent acts are much more likely to occur in lower-income communities of color. We see similar effects in product manufacturing industries such as fashion and tech. Most people who manufacture goods and textiles globally are people of color. Yet the majority who profit off of these industries are not.

Enter the sustainable fashion revolution, a movement that is attempting to highlight the economic and social injustices experienced by those who make our clothes. This movement is perched upon the rhetoric that transparency is essential to eradicating the inhumane practices of an entire industry and is premised upon an egregious tragedy. In 2013, more than 1,000 garment workers lost their lives in Bangladesh due to a building collapse. This building housed a number of garment factories that manufactured apparel for brands including Benetton, the Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Mango, Primark, and Walmart. In other words, fast fashion companies. This is known amongst the sustainable fashion circles as the Rana Plaza incident.

Rana Plaza is an example of capitalism’s role in environmental and racial inequality. In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that capitalism brought about “a chance for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples.” Countries that consist of black or brown people have been referred to as the “Global South” — less developed countries experiencing environmental and economic violence comparable to that which was perpetuated in the southern states of the U.S. during slavery, Jim Crow and, for many, present day. Historically, people of color in the Global South bear the most significant burdens of resource development, while receiving very little payoff. Capitalism has justified greed and Rana Plaza was a prime example of this truth.

A sustainable revolution in the fashion industry is therefore critical to the future of fashion, the preservation of natural resources and the empowerment of garment workers worldwide. However, I caution against any further omissions of the discussion of racism — the underlying reason this industry has been allowed to exploit people and resources.

Sustainability requires its participants to shift paradigms, see through barriers, and courageously and compassionately engage with people and systems that one might not otherwise consider in order to create a future we can all be proud of. Sustainability must be disruptive. Change is uncomfortable. But building a house, building an enterprise, building a mindset, new habits, a future, requires the destruction of fear, weakness, and comfort. This is the only way to drive innovation in our personal lives and in society. Sustainability is not ahistorical, and we must engage in reflexivity, that is, critically reflecting on how the past influences the present and the future. Moving forward requires addressing where we’ve come from and where we are going.