Apparel, Fashion & Retail | Fashion | News & Insights

Consumers expect brands to take accountability for their actions

Published: August 1, 2020

It’s easy to rattle off a list of buzzwords born from the sustainability movement: “ethical,” “organic,” “conscious,” “transparent,” even “sustainability” itself. Intersectionality has never been on that list, nor has it been mentioned much in mainstream media; the only silver lining is that it was never co-opted or rendered meaningless, either. But a brand can’t really be “sustainable”—even by its own definition—if it isn’t thinking about intersectionality, defined as “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet” by Leah Thomas in her recent interview. “It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected,” she wrote. “It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.”

 

It also runs counter to many of fashion’s long-held beliefs about sustainability: that as soon as a designer starts using organic cotton, it’s “sustainable”; that designers work with artisans in Africa and India to give them work and “preserve their crafts,” not because the quality is unparalleled (though white saviorism in fashion is a whole other story); and, more broadly, that social justice and protecting the environment are separate issues. You can’t fly the flag for protecting the ocean without considering climate change’s effects on Black, brown, and indigenous populations; you shouldn’t dedicate your life to veganism without an understanding of food security in low-income neighborhoods.

“Accountability is usually what’s missing,” Whitney McGuire, the cofounder of Sustainable Brooklyn, explains. Along with organizing educational events and community programs in Brooklyn, she and her partner Dominique Drakeford consult brands and designers on their environmental and social efforts—and point out where there’s room to improve. Past clients and event partners include Eileen Fisher, Apple, Mara Hoffman, and ReFashion Week New York, and McGuire and Drakeford have worked with Fibershed and Conscious Chatter on their internal infrastructures and systems. Consumers are holding brands accountable in a way they haven’t in the past, but we can’t exclusively rely on citizens to police brands, nor can we buy our way to a better future. Legislation and policy change are necessary for systemic change; consider what’s happening in Xinjiang, where one-fifth of the world’s cotton is sourced and where Uighurs are currently being imprisoned in “re-education camps.” Brands including Adidas, Calvin Klein, L.L. Bean, and Abercrombie & Fitch source cotton and labor from the region, and petitions are demanding those brands cut ties with their Xinjiang suppliers. Many have agreed, and some claimed they weren’t even aware their clothes were coming from that part of China, because their supply chains are so vast and complicated—with sub-contractors who then have their own sub-contractors—that they’ve become untraceable. That’s also why they may not be able to keep their promise: As Matthew Walther wrote in an op-ed for The Week, a brand “might insist to a firm it has contracted to fill orders for its discount line that no Xinjiang cotton be used, but even if the company were actually interested in enforcing these terms, it would be unable to do so. This is why for major corporations these lofty-sounding ethical initiatives are always a no-brainer.”

Brands that want to avoid that fate should talk to McGuire and Drakeford. “We provide insight into sustainability from the lens of the African Diaspora so that brands can implement a different level of responsibility within their structure, because what corporations do trickles down to the community, oftentimes in a negative way, especially targeted communities,” Drakeford says. “We do this through internal programming, consulting, partnerships, and our symposiums, which ensure members of our community are seen and heard in a way that traditionally isn’t part of the typical sustainability symposium or platform. We really drive our projects and initiatives from a very Black and brown point of view, always taking it back to our community. We make sure it isn’t only education and discussion, but also actions that create localized sustainability.”

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