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Rethinking sustainable fashion – why race and privilege aren’t separate issues

Find out what intersectionality means for retailers and why labels can't rightly call themselves sustainable without being inclusive.
Rethinking sustainable fashion – why race and privilege aren’t separate issues | EDITED

As the fashion industry reflects on the current calls for systemic change, consumers are questioning brands’ eco-credentials and if they fall short on advocating for social justice. Find out what intersectionality means for retailers and why labels can’t rightly call themselves sustainable without being inclusive.

As the climate crisis continues to reach critical mass, sustainability has become a buzzword within fashion. Last year, there was an increased number of brands across all sectors of the industry trying to prove their eco-friendly chops. In our 2019 Sustainable EDIT, we clocked a 125% increase in new products arriving online across the US and UK described as ‘sustainable’ since 2017. The use of organic and environmentally-friendly materials also soared as retailers embraced the concept of a greener future. 

While fashion was making the switch to organic cotton and drawing attention to the impacts of various fabrics on the planet, many neglected to acknowledge the poor communities of color who experience injustices from the industry’s processes including the impact of fashion’s enormous contribution to landfill. 

This is not a new conversation. Unfortunately, it’s one that has taken the urgency of a global pandemic and political unrest to be reignited.

Intersectional Environmentalism and the fashion industry

Climate activist, Leah Thomas (@greengirlleah), describes Intersectional Environmentalism as, “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet.”

The movement identifies how marginalized people of color are often left out of the conversation, yet are the most vulnerable to negative environmental impacts. Within the fashion industry, the current systems in place predominantly benefit the elite while harming disadvantaged Black and Brown communities. So much of fast fashion is made and then dumped at landfills in poorer countries. It affects those most at risk of climate change and pollution, on top of limited access to basic human rights such as clean water and medical treatment. In wealthier countries, communities of color live and work in the most polluted areas such as garment manufacturers in LA.

As many fast fashion brands took to social media to show solidarity for Black Lives Matter, people quickly pointed out the failure of these companies to look inwards and address the injustices happening in their own supply chains with predominantly BIPOC workers subjected to dangerous working conditions and low wages. 

Going forward, race and privilege will need to become interwoven into retailers’ sustainability agendas with a focus on transparency and accountability. 

Thomas recently launched The Intersectional Environmentalist, a platform aiming to dismantle racism within the climate movement. In addition to the educational resources available, Thomas is working on helping businesses become Intersectional Environmentalist certified, holding company’s accountable to share data on their diversity and environmental responsibility.

Come Back As A Flower
Come Back As A Flower

The #PayUp movement 

The coronavirus pandemic drew attention to sustainability with fast fashion experiencing a much-needed slowdown. However, the financial repercussions of orders canceled and factories closed were felt by marginalized communities, leaving garment workers unable to buy groceries or pay for rent.  

According to Remake, The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reported more than $3 billion in canceled or suspended orders, impacting more than 2 million garment workers. Other parts of Southeast Asia, Central America and Haiti are also deeply affected. 

Remake launched the #PayUp petition, calling out some of the largest fashion brands to foot their bills. Currently, 18 brands have joined, the latest being Levi’s and ASOS.


Additionally, new transparency initiatives have been launched by brands to help find solutions to the social and ecological challenges currently faced. Gucci launched its Equilibrium platform to generate positive change for people and the planet, including setting up scholarship funds through its Changemakers program, aiming to improve opportunities in fashion for young people from diverse backgrounds. Zalando rolled out its do.MOREstrategy, making it compulsory for private labels wanting to be stocked online to complete an assessment that measures the brand’s social and environmental impact.

The pandemic and political unrest have shed light on vital issues within the fashion industry. Got EDITED access? Log in and read our analysis on How Fashion Is Taking A Stance.

The future mindset

The events of 2020 have made it clear that the fashion industry can’t return to its pre-pandemic processes and levels of mass production. COVID-19 has accelerated conversations around rethinking the retail calendar, increasing sustainability throughout supply chains through the use of less waste in fabrics and inventory.

There is a growing mindset shift around the degrowth movement – working less, buying less and making less. Going beyond the need for minimalism, retailers need to encourage consumers to make slower and more ethical fashion choices, spotlighting the concept of ‘buy less, buy better.’ 

As the fashion industry is currently amid a reset, businesses need to rethink their sustainable commitments, ensuring diversity and inclusion are at the core of brand values and the sustainable ‘good’ is being felt throughout the supply chain, positively affecting both people and the planet.

The industry has to do better with the future of sustainable fashion going beyond capsule collections. Transparency and waste management from overproduction needs to be brought to light and labels can not truly identify as ‘sustainable’ if they ignore the fight against social justice – regardless of the fabrics listed on the care tag.

EDITED gives retailers the power to adjust assortments accordingly, minimizing the number of unsold goods adding to this global problem. Get in touch today