Is Ethical Fashion Racist? See Why I’d Say Yes!

Is ethical fashion racist? If you ask me, yes! Here’s why.

By Dominique Drakeford

Let’s keep it real: the fashion industry is an engine that’s driven by modern slavery, whose success manifests from darker skinned people in what’s often referred to as ‘the developing world’ or ‘global south’.

We tend to turn a blind eye to it, but cultural context has everything to do with the world of fashion, from the underpaid workers in poorer countries sewing and weaving fibers grown by dark-skinned people in faraway places, to the superstar  designers dressing models up with ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal inspired’ prints as part of  their seasonal presentations.  

A small community of people have become aware of these issues, and is aiming to bring them to light: I’m talking about the ethical fashion community. But could it be said that this mainly female-led group of sustainable fashion crusaders is yet another band of privileged white women essentially focused on first world problems? I would argue that yes, this is the case. And so if you’d ask me: is ethical fashion racist? Again, the answer would be yes. Here’s why.

Meet the Ethical Fashionistas

Ethical fashion lovers form an almost cult-like community of people who give a damn about the environment and the workers making their clothes. They support designers who work directly with skilled artisans and those who embrace non-toxic production techniques, working to be more transparent.

Marketing research shows these women tend to have postgraduate qualifications, are married or in long term partnerships,  tend to come from middle class backgrounds or higher – and are predominantly white. Some of the most famous names behind the movement include Livia Firth, Lucy Siegel, Emma Watson, and Orsola de Castro – all of whom exemplify this consumer profile.

Sure, it’s wonderful that these women care about who made their clothes. But the truth is, many of them don’t give a damn about – or perhaps even think about – the cultural pillars of sustainability. By this, I mean the majority of women come to ethical fashion from the perspective of the wealthy consumer – for they are in an economic position to consume regularly.

Going Deeper

Whilst they may argue that the darker skinned women who are on the production end of fashion deserve a better wage, they never seem to even question for one moment why it is darker skinned women who are behind the sewing machines in the first place.

According to the American Department of Commerce, of the top apparel-exporting countries, monthly minimum wages in Bangladesh were  the lowest: $39 dollars per month as of mid-2013. In India, America’s sixth-most-important clothing importer, it’s $71. Garment-industry workers in China fare slightly better, although minimum monthly wages there vary by province, from $138 in Guangdong to $262 in Shanghai.

Ethical fashionistas are trying to push those wages up and improve the horrendous working conditions of garment workers in our main clothing supplying nations. But as I mentioned above, we need to go deeper and question is why our clothing production is outsourced to darker women in the first place? And the answer is not simple.

Historic Imbalance

History has shown us that colonisation, genocide and economic exploitation by Anglo/European races has often left those with darker skins in positions of poverty, vulnerability and instability. Whilst this history goes long and deep, it can be safe to say that the dominance of Anglo/Europeans around the globe is the result of a well-planned globalisation agenda.

This sees those outside the realm of the white nations of power (think: northern Europe, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia) in rather vulnerable positions as the producers of our consumer goods. With very few exceptions (like tight American allies, Japan and South Korea), the developing world is merely seen as territory to be exploited for its raw materials and labour.

It’s Political

Trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO, as well as financial pressure from the IMF and World Bank, national taxation laws, amongst other instruments, reinforce this duality. Whilst such legislation and their effects are too complex to delve into in this article, the bottom line is that it could be strongly argued that the aftereffects of colonisation, along with the impact of most global trade agreements, clearly leave the Anglo countries better off. And the countries with darker skinned inhabitants are always comparatively worse off.

International banking and trade agreements often  disempower those nations from taking control of their own economies, financial markets, labour laws and sovereignty, restricting them from developing their own models for production and growth.

When a nation dares take such control into their own hands, America and its allies simply send in the ‘economic hit men’ to pressure them back into a pro-American model. Think of what happened in  Chile and Indonesia in the 70’s, or why Iran and Syria are under constant threat or attack by our governments today.

Furthermore, it seems that the rules that apply to the rich, generally whiter North don’t apply to the darker skinned South. For example, whilst white-guy owned companies like Louis Vuitton and Gucci are happy to shut down Chinese factories making copies of their bags, Isabel Marant, a well-known Parisian designer, created exact replicas of traditional apparel from the mixed communities of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Done, of course, without giving them a penny for this blatant plagiarism.  

How To Take Action

The ‘ethical fashion community’ needs to think deeper. For example, these are often the same women who brag about a big clothing donation they’ve made to Africa, without considering the economic devaluation they’re sparking for local clothing brands, who can’t compete with ‘free’.

These are the same folks who will march up and down for ‘first world’ women’s rights causes like untaxed tampons, but would be unwilling to do the same for issues that affect darker skinned women, such as institutional  violence or lower pay for equal work.

These are the same women who wear Inca or Aztec-style clothing from Topshop because they don’t want to pay more for goods made by the very women who invented those stitches. And when they do visit Peru or Mexico, they’ll bargain down local fashion producers to the last penny because: ‘why should I pay more just because they think I’m rich?

The reality is that white women are richer. And while it’s nice that ethical fashionistas aim to have brown women’s wages upped, it’s not until the brown women are in the game of producing and designing fashion for consumption to the masses that we can say there’s really such a thing as ‘ethical fashion’.

Dominique Drakeford is the Founder of  Chief Curator at

Is ethical fashion racist in your opinion? Do you agree with Dominique? We’d love to hear your comments, below.

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17 thoughts on “Is Ethical Fashion Racist? See Why I’d Say Yes!”

  1. I have to tell you that I loved this article.
    To me, the statement you are making is quite clear, and while I can see how people may take offense, that’s not, nor should it be, your concern. The truth is…this article is the truth.
    Unfortunately, I think a lot of readers did not allow themselves to see from the perspective of the people/countries that are being most affected by the ENTIRE fashion industry (because it’s not just low cost fashion…or as people like to call it ‘fast’ fashion that is the issue, plenty of luxury brands enforce unrealistic time constraints on suppliers/manufacturers to produce goods fast, just as LCR do), in order to understand the historical implications of so called ‘developed’ countries looking to clean up their mess, long after the damage has already been done. This has been the chicken and egg game these countries have used for centuries in order to deflect taking responsibility for being the root of the problem.
    Sure, all efforts in the move towards, ethical/sustainable/circular fashion are all exemplary. We should all be fans of, and support these movements, regardless of….anything really. But the truth is the truth, and facts are facts. It is easy for us to think, ‘Oh, we’re helping to make a change, we shouldn’t be criticized for it!’ But at the end of the day, we have already ‘changed’ the over all well being of ‘developing’ nations (and not always for the better) long before any of these movements came to fruition, and that was when we decided to outsource the manufacturing processes of the apparel industry. This was done by using their labor, and barely paying for it, destroying their environments by dumping our unwanted textiles there, and helping to cause serious health related issues due to a number of other factors with direct relation to textile and apparel manufacturing processes. What we should actually be supporting is fair, living wages for garment workers, period. Not depending on what kind of products they make, or who they make it for. The movement should be about humanity, and people who work being fairly and justly compensated for their skills.
    I think the overarching point is, stop looking for pats on the back. Stop looking to walk around with an ‘S’ on your chest, when what we are doing, in reality, is cleaning up our own mess by advocating for further consumerism….even if it is ethical. We can also get into discussions about who can afford ethical fashion. Is it ethical that the people who manufacture ethical fashion products, despite the fact that they are being paid higher wages, could not walk into a shop and by the very item they so diligently made?
    I fully support your concluding statement, “it’s not until the brown women are in the game of producing and designing fashion for consumption to the masses that we can say there’s really such a thing as ‘ethical fashion’.” WOC/POC must have more visibility and more opportunities in the fashion industry in general. I too am a student of sustainable/ethical fashion and a WOC, and I can say that the narrative is definitely one-sided.
    The bottom line- the people with the money get to make the decisions (and unfortunately, most of them happen to be white), even when it comes down to what causes we’ve decided to care about on any given day…..and that, people, is what we call privilege.

  2. This is the most accusatory piece I have ever read in my life. Is there even any rational or research behind this? Topshop isn’t considered an “ethical” brand.

  3. Good morning everyone!
    SURPRISED! and sad.Those can be the words to describe how I feel about this article.

    It’s funny how I got here,I am conducting a research proposal on the impact of “inclusive” fashion in the industry and if including black women in runways makes fashion more inclusive. The words I typed where: sustainable fashion+racism

    I think it is hilarious Google suggested this page because even I was worried about having a biased and partial vision on the topic I am writing about due to my cultural and racial context. (To clarify I am a half Basque -half Peruvian woman and….I kind of look like the picture you selected for this article which is definitely scary)
    This said…I think you ALSO have a very biased opinion on ethical fashion and I couldn’t ´ be more surprised you have such an opinion given your very impressive background.

    Of course, in your article there are some valid points, I agree the focus in many topics might be inaccurate, that FAST (not all fashion) perpetuates inequalities, that cultural appropriation does exist more often that we care to admit, or even that fashion is very late to join the sustainability movement…ok

    However, you are making a huge generalization about white women and ethical fashion. The fact that I am white doesn’t make me less aware of the exploitation western countries are doing to so-called “third world countries”. Moreover, the fact that I am white doesn’t make me less aware that we could argue if our vision of fashion is a modern way of colonialism.The fact that I am white, blond and feminist doesn’t mean I am not willing to march for my sisters all over the world and join their struggle and their causes.
    The fact that I am white doesn’t make me less consistent and coherent about my values, thoughts and behavior.
    The fact that I am white, middle-class and I had the enormous luck to access high education doesn’t mean I do not consider Fashion and generally speaking capitalist world sad and unfair. Also, it doesn’t make me less-victim of the system than you are. You talk about northern/anglo/european countries being exploitative as if the people in them where exploitative too and as that is far from reality.
    Precisely because we understand our privilege and we understand the tremendous “luck” to be born in a “rich” part of the world and to have privileged access to education, health, human rights, food or anything you can think about, precisely because we are very aware of our privilege is that we are working towards a more ethical,sustinable and fair fashion. I say WE because I am not alone, there is a huge community of people around the world(from all colors,genders and socioeconomic backgrounds) working in the same direction too and trying to diminish them by saying they are white girls trying to appear good and cool is simply incorrect.
    I get who you are trying to describe, but I don’t think that cliche represents ethical fashion at all. I have to agree with Sunee who commented above, there are some very interesting and valid points in this discussion and you missed them while trying to criticize a very specific part of the population.

    Of course there is still a very long way to go to make this industry sustainable and ethical, but please don ´t exclude us from the movement just for the color of our skin: let’s work together!

  4. You hit the nail on the head—we need to increase inclusion of POC designers in the sustainable fashion industry. That said, I would argue that we also go beyond socioeconomic bounds. Meaning, many of us who are minorities in this  arena  are also privileged.  

    In terms of cost, sustainable fashion is more attainable now than ever, particularly with brands like PACT and Threads for Thought. Other designers have costs that are comparable to those in department stores and mall brands, which the general population purchases without question. So, it’s not that people, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, aren’t purchasing fashion. They are. It’s that they don’t buy-in. This is why representation is essential, at least if this niche is going to broaden and actually make a difference.  

  5. Thin attempt to take a decent set of people trying to do good while still with flaws and make a racist hate-filled tirade about it. I am sure I can make a very long list of your flaws. Being a racist is at the top.
    However, I am pretty sure you probably don’t even really believe this, it is just that hate and racism sells these days on both sides of the political spectrum in the USA.
    Oh, and finally, I am Peruvian, my mother in law is a street vendor, I don’t need you and your privileged entitled self speaking up for my family about things you know nothing about, especially when claiming to defend it with racism and hate.

  6. Hi Dominique,
    One of the reasons I started blogging about ethical fashion is because, well…bloggers are predominantly white women with a specific sense of fashion and lifestyle that doesn’t appeal to me. Not that it’s a bad thing, you can only speak about your experience, I just think that this space should be more diverse. Most of the time I come across articles talking about how donating your clothes doesn’t solve anything, and that bargaining at a market is a douche move, and if you are supposed to be all about ethical fashion you shouldn’t be seen near a TopShop…I am sure that there are people like this, but I wouldn’t consider them ethical fashionistas, they are hacks, and hacks are in every industry/scene/space. I would have liked to see the other side of this article, what does it mean to be a real ethical fashionista? While it is good to call out the “Food Babe” equivalent of ethical fashion I would have liked to read about who is doing it the right way.

  7. I was about to argue against your statements until I read the last paragraphs. As an Indonesian, I can vouch for what happened to the Communist movement in Indonesia—since 1965—and how many conspiracy theories there are surrounding the bloody coup. It has certainly been said that the US might have played a role in it—although even now, I don’t think it has been widely proven. While I do believe that ethical fashion isn’t just a “white woman” thing—because I’m definitely not white and I’m passionate about it myself—for cultural reasons as well, I understand exactly what you mean. In the ethical fashion industry, a term that is often used is “made in the US,” and while that is all well and dandy for US residents, it’s not doing much for people in other parts of the world—especially the so-called “developing countries.” Like it or not these sweatshops have created job opportunities for people who would otherwise have found it hard to compete with the rest of their respective country—including Indonesia. What needs to be changed is not necessarily WHERE the clothes are manufactured but HOW. Or, more importantly, actually support brands from said countries whenever you come to visit—don’t come to Indonesia, for instance, looking for uniqlo. Purchase from local artisans as much as possible is what I believe to be the most helpful—or at least local brands who definitely collaborate (not exploit) those artisans. That being said, shopping local isn’t necessarily good, if you don’t know where the materials come from—the design and products may be locally made, but the materials might not.

    I’d also like to emphasise that it’s not a strictly “white women” thing. I believe it’s more of a social status/class thing. Rich people all over the world do it. They tend to exploit—preferring to look cool to really thinking where their clothes comes from or how they could contribute to the local community. It’s pretty much the same everywhere—North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Afrika, Australia. So I don’t believe it’s a race thing, it’s just an economical background thing—and we have to acknowledge it as such—because the more we claim it’s a “white” thing, we’re letting the other bourgeoisie within other races off the hook.

    1. Hi Bivi
      The USA’s involvement in the 1965 coup is well documented – it’s even on Wikipedia! Take a look at the references for further reading. As for ethical fashion being a bourgeoisie thing and not racial – In my opinion, the writer was saying that – but noting that globally, it just so happens that most bourgeoisie are white. But your point is well taken – I agree this is more about class.

  8. As the previous comments have mentioned, this was an article surrounding an interesting idea that is worth exploring, but it was extremely disappointing. It lacked sufficient support for many of the statements it made, and was obviously very poorly-researched, and poorly-argued. It feels as though the author does not even know who or what the ethical fashion community is and what it stands for, as many points are completely inaccurate (ie. No one in the ethical fashion community would ever brag about how much they “donated to Africa”. That’s what the general, mainstream public does).
    Hopefully next time someone explores this topic they will do so with more knowledge under their belt.

    1. Dominique C Drakeford

      ELENA – LOL I know more about the Ethical Fashion community than most people. I received a BA in environmental studies and got my masters from NYU in Sustainable Entrepreneurship & Fashion. I’ve worked under large ethical brands in NY and got my hands dirty with numerous grassroots brands. I lived in Ghana for several months working with Studio 189 working directly with artisans. I did grant writing in California for ethical start ups and so on … and so forth. So honey I’ve been in this space for over 10 years and I know “who and what the ethical fashion community is”. What many need to understand is that being person of color (and I don’t know if you are one and can attest to this) but living in brown skin is a very different experience. On a daily basis white people have micro aggressions and show hatred and racism in ways that only people of color can understand. What I would like for you do, is not think of “bragging”in a traditional sense. Plenty of “conscious” white women have bragged about the work they do in developing countries because many white women have a savior complex that only POC can really see and understand. So the conversations I’ve had in conjunction with deciphering IG messages from trips abroad — most certainly bragging. I’m critiquing a community who is known to be and do good for humanity – and without taking away the amazing work their doing – there is still structural exploitation and institutionalized racism that needs to be addressed. And sometimes it take generalizing to get the conversation going! HOPEFULLY NEXT TIME, YOU EXPLORE MY BACKGROUND AND RESEARCH MY HISTORY SO THAT YOU HAVE MORE KNOWLEDGE UNDER YOUR BELT BEFORE SAYING THAT I DON’T KNOW THIS COMMUNITY! : )

      1. Hi Dominique – that does definitely sound like a great list of credentials. But unfortunately, I didn’t feel that that extent of knowledge came across in your article. As I mentioned, I am not arguing against the fact that you raise an interesting point that deserves to be discussed. And I am sure that being a person of colour is a different experience, but I can’t say that I really learned anything about what that experience is like through this article (and I have read articles that were really good at doing this before, so please don’t simply assume that I am unwilling to listen or understand). I would also have to disagree with the fact that it takes generalization to get a conversation going – this approach just swings the pendulum in the opposite direction and encourages polarization of opinion rather than understanding and compassion.
        I also find it interesting that you chose to write such a long response to my comment but have not responded to the previous comments I referred to, which clearly outline all of the issues, misinformation and lack of facts found in your article. I would love to hear what you have to say about that.

  9. I was excited to see the title of this article but after reading it, I think you have completely missed the point, or rather several points.
    1. While it is true that many vocal proponents of sustainable fashion are rich white ladies, you have characterized them completely incorrectly. But the comment above illustrates that so I’ll save space.
    2. There are many many many issues surrounding race within the fashion and clothing manufacturing world and yet your wildly flung shot seems to have missed 90% of them. I thought it might be interesting to read a perspective about people who aren’t rich or white working in the ethical fashion world ( because we do exsist) but instead you’ve just made an uneducated set of assumptions about something you quite obviously know very little about.
    3. Ethical fashion supporters do care about getting workers a living wage, but they also care intensely about slowing down the rate of consumption because it is widely accepted that the earth can not support our current consumptive culture as our population continues to grow. For this reason, most people who work in and are interested in ethical fashion will also embrace slow fashion, or at least, slow their roll.
    3. Shopping local and second hand is also ethical. Surely that is not limited to racial or socioeconomic lines?

    What you wrote about colonialism and race intersecting with economic opportunities and trade agreements is powerful and should certainly be called attention to, frequently. But the connection to your fictional and unlikely ethical fashion dame is where you lost me.

    Sustainable fashion is incredibly multifaceted and there are amazing people doing important and inspiring work in the field. I strongly suggest you look some of them up. I love to see articles about ethical fashion that shed light on challenges, but this one lacks enough fact to even be able to be a critique.

  10. Rebecca Ratliff

    I’m curious as to what ethical fashionistas you’ve seen purchasing from or suggesting Topshop, let alone pieces from them that could be seen as cultural appropriation. Topshop is seen as just as bad as all the other fast fashion brands, which the ethical fashion community shuns. I’m also curious as to how you’ve missed the many articles written by ethical fashion bloggers on the issues surrounding clothing donation and how we should not look at donating as a reason to purchase clothing that we either know won’t last long or we know we won’t want to wear for long. For the issue of what to do without clothing we’ll inevitably want to get rid of at some point, ethical fashionistas are huge proponents of local clothing swaps.

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