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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 are 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.
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 Liva Firth, Lucy Siegel, Emma Watson, and Orsola de Castro – all of whom exemplify this consumer profile.
Sure, it’s wonderful that these fashionistas 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. So, 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.
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, which 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.
This duality is reinforced by trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO, financial pressure from the IMF and World Bank, national taxation laws, amongst other instruments. 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 leave the Anglo countries better off – and the countries with darker skinned inhabitants 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 have been known to 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 are not applicable 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 – without giving them a penny for this blatant plagiarism.
Action must be taken
The ‘ethical fashion community’ needs to think a bit more, a bit 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 Incan or Aztec-style embroidered clothing from Topshop because they don’t want to pay more for goods imported from 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’.