The umbrella of sustainable and ethical fashion covers many aspects from sustainable fabrics to fair trade supply chains to carbon-reducing manufacturing practices.
But one crucial element many of us don’t think of when it comes to ethical fashion is inclusivity.
A greener fashion industry in any shape or form is important, but we can’t ignore the fact that mainstream eco-chic is largely whitewashed and saturated by skinny models.
While there is nothing wrong with that (because all bodies are beautiful, skinny ones included), it’s not a true representation of who we are.
PETITE TO PLUS: ETHICAL FASHION FITS ALL BODIES
The first thing we think of when it comes to inclusivity in fashion is size
And no wonder, considering fashion has been spamming us with images of 00 size models and thigh gaps for half a century.
Not only are these portrayals unrealistic but also dangerous, breeding body image issues that, for example, can lead to damaged self-esteem and deadly eating disorders.
While a causal link between the fashion industry and eating disorders of the general populace (models excluded) has not scientifically been established, 70% of girls in grades 5-12 said magazine images influence their ideals of a perfect body.
More and more ethical plus size clothing brands (including some really inspirationally inclusive ethical lingerie brands) are popping up but we can’t wait for the day when ALL brands offer a full range of sizes.
P.O.C. REPRESENTATION: IT’S TIME WE DO BETTER
Ethical fashion not only means fashion for all bodies, but also for all races, and fashion has an even longer way to go in this department.
In 2016 78% of models used in fashion advertising were white, meaning POC made up only 22%. By 2019, that number had increased to 36.1%, which shows the industry is certainly on the right track, but let’s not stop there.
Models aren’t the only facet of fashion that is whitewashed; designers are also disproportionately white. As of the 2015 New York Fashion Week, only 3 of the major featured designers were not white. Three...out of 260!
To elevate P.O.C. communities and give them equal footing in the fashion industry, we need to start demanding more representation.
How can we do that?
By supporting brands with a diverse image and, better yet, supporting small, Black-owned businesses and designers themselves.
Beyond that, we need to call attention to the issue and put pressure on more
brands to change their inclusivity policies. Supporting POC and other marginalized groups means not just silently spending, but actively using our voices to show support.
One simple way to do that is to start leaving reviews when supporting POC-owned businesses and others that prioritize diversity. Only 10% of consumers leave reviews, despite the fact that about 40% use reviews when making purchasing decisions.
While writing a few sentences of praise may not seem like much, it draws more attention to certain brands, highlights their efforts, and makes future shopping reading the review think about what’s important.
LARGER RACE ISSUES IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY
As important as representation is, the connection between race issues and fashion goes deeper than that.
On a broader scale, POC cultures are frequently omitted from the green sphere,
despite the fact that they’re the ones most likely to suffer from the environmental and labor abuses of the fashion industry.
Fashion has made millions on the backs of sweatshop labor in developing countries, paying paltry sums in exchange for reaping environmental devastation on local communities.
Next to coal, fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world. Since so much of fast fashion’s output comes from poor non-white countries, we know exactly who suffers most from this fact.
Even in the United States and Canada, environmental racism is still alive and propelled by greedy industries just like fashion.
Environmental racism “refers to the unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources based on race. Communities of color are disproportionately victimized by environmental hazards and are far more likely to live in areas with heavy pollution.”
STRIVING FOR GENDER EQUALITY IN FASHION
In the words of Good On You, “Fast fashion is a feminist issue.”
Because 80% of garment workers are young women between the ages of 18 and 35. These women are often the primary providers for their families, despite the fact that their wages on the whole are abysmally low.
In Bangladesh, for example, female garment workers earn the equivalent of $97 per month (!). Despite lower costs of living in developing countries, this is abysmally low.
Worse still are those who don’t choose to work under such conditions. The 2018 Global Slavery Index reports that of the 40.3 million trapped in modern slavery, 71% were women. While these statistics are not isolated to the fashion industry, it certainly plays its part by acting as an ideal scenario for human trafficking.
However, the 2nd and 3rd world countries are not the only places where this poses a problem. In North America, where it’s not uncommon to spend $97 on
coffee in a month, it’s easy to get distracted by these places and ignore the problems on our own shores.
Despite their stricter labor laws, Europe and North America are not immune to the human rights violations that pose threats to fashion industry workers. In fact, America has astoundingly high levels of human trafficking.
Promoting ethical fashion means fighting for these women specifically, not only providing them with fair wages and safe environments but helping those escaping from human trafficking transition into a sustainable life.
The answer isn’t as simple as boycotting garments with “Made in China” on the label or blindly buying those that are made-in-the-USA. Instead, the answer lies in being discerning, curious consumers.
Ask, “Who made my clothes? Were they paid fairly? How can I find out?”
About Us pages are a great place to start and will often link to even further information about their supply chain and labor practices.
Some brands may have certifications from third-party auditors, include copies of the Code of Conduct, or put out an annual Sustainability Report so consumers may know exactly what their new dress costs the planet. Others still may have joined the Lowest Wage Challenge and publish what their lowest-paid employee makes.
These are all good things to look for and the more transparent a brand is, the better.
If brands themselves aren’t the most transparent, a simple Google search may lead to brand reviews and articles with the information you seek.
Last but certainly not least, reach out and ask them! Let them know their customers are holding them ethically accountable.
COMBATING TRANS-ERASURE IN FASHION
While working to uplift women is necessary for a fair fashion industry, we can’t let that focus erase an even more marginalized group: non-binary folx.
As more and more people recognize that gender is a social construct, fashion needs to actively combat the transphobia that has pervaded these groups for so long. Thankfully there’s a burgeoning swell of gender-neutral clothing brands that are intent on changing the status quo into a more fluid market. No doubt this trend will continue to rise.
Final Thoughts on Inclusive Ethical Fashion
Representation means everyone: every color, every size, every gender.
Until ethical fashion more wholly reflects these beautiful differences we humans possess, it will never be truly ethical.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re arguably living in the most fashion-inclusive period, which, with the recent emphasis on slow fashion, also highlights our desire to protect the environment. But if the last five years have shown us anything, it’s that there is no end to how much we can continue to improve.
By, Amber McDaniel at the Sustainable Jungle. Sustainable Jungle encourages and galvanizes positive change. They share sustainability-related ideas, tips, tricks, hacks, products, brands and stories of people & organizations doing meaningful work to future-proof our planet.