Is Racial Diversity Just a Buzzword For Sustainable Fashion?

Nana K. Twumasi

The fall 2019 fashion weeks marked the most racially diverse runways to date in the United States and Europe. On average, 38.8 percent of models cast in runway shows in New York City, London, Milan, and Paris were models of color, a more than 50 percent increase since Fashion Spot started tracking diversity in fashion weeks in 2015. But while it is good news that the fashion industry seems to be getting the message that inclusion isn’t just a buzzword, as a whole it still has a long way to go before people of color are truly represented.

In recent years, some high-end brands have faced scrutiny over serious design missteps that were pegged as racist. In 2018, Prada pulled a $550 keychain after several customers felt it resembled Little Sambo, a character from an illustrated children’s book with racial overtones. In 2019, Guicci pulled a sweater after an ad, featuring a white model, showed that the black sweater could be rolled halfway up the face, revealing a cut out around the mouth with a wide red outline. Many customers felt that the $890 jumper resembled ‘blackface.’

It isn’t just well-known luxury brands that have run into trouble: grassroots sustainable designers are showing a lack of inclusion, too. Early in 2019, there was a fracas among Instagram’s sustainable fashion community. Son de Flor, a Lithuanian-based clothing company known best for its linen creations, came under fire for poor representation in its marketing efforts and social media.

It wasn’t just that Son de Flor’s marketing used, at the time, exclusively white women in its social media posting. As initially reported by Fashionista, Son de Flor frequently used Japanese-language hashtags to promote posts on Instagram to target what was, for them, a big market, but rarely included models or influencers of color on their grid. In effect, the brand was promoting a white-only aesthetic while also benefiting from the opportunities afforded diverse and intercultural marketing.

But Son de Flor is far from the only fashion brand that struggles with diversity in marketing and that’s a problem for both the industry and its buyers.

Greater expectations

Sustainable fashion is a counter to the fast fashion movement that is one of the dirtiest industries, next to Big Oil, and it doesn’t come cheap. For example, take these $68 leggings from Girlfriend Collective, which are made from recycled water bottles, compared to roughly the same style by Old Navy for $22. But the growing industry proves that some consumers are willing to spend more for ethical fashion for one big reason: According to research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it’s because we believe doing so helps turn our desire for a better world into action.

Which is part of what makes the lack of diversity in sustainable fashion so troubling. A better world should also be a more inclusive world and excluding black and indigenous people of color (BIPOCs) from marketing campaigns for sustainable fashion seems to reinforce an exclusivity at odds with the idea that sustainable fashion is helping to craft a better world.

A brand might claim its wares are for everyone—but if they don’t actively display diversity in their marketing practices that brand is actually saying: these products are only for the individuals pictured here, those who fit this profile.

It is also troubling for the future of the niche industry. In a piece for The Good Trade, writer Celeste Scott says, “For brands with ethical and sustainable practices at the forefront of their mission, the need for radical inclusivity is all the more pressing. Brands will not successfully shift consumers’ shopping habits toward more conscious brands if they refuse to represent the diverse array of consumers that exist.” Put simply: In order to convince the most people to buy fewer things of better quality and spend more money on those things, the industry needs to convince those individuals that they, too, are included in this drive toward a more sustainable existence.

How consumers can change the marketplace

Son de Flor wasn’t alone in a troubling lack of diversity. A similar brand, Not Perfect Linen, does better, but their marketing is still fairly monochromatic. Designer Jesse Kamm has faced similar criticism in recent years for her lack of size inclusivity in addition to a lack of diverse models, and several BIPOC makers of ethical and sustainable fashion can’t help but notice the lack of racial inclusivity in their peers’ marketing efforts.

In theory, brands should be responsible to represent racial diversity at the very least, but failing that, modern consumers have a remarkable access to the brands they love and with it, they are holding product producers accountable. They can call them out publicly, or opt to spend their money elsewhere. According to Aja Barber, sustainable style advocate and personal stylist, “Brands have a responsibility to be diverse in the core of their business… it’s just good business at this point, [otherwise] you’re excluding part of the population when you could be making sales. That’s just silly.” Barber goes on to say, “Listen, I don’t think we should have to ask for these things. But until everyone does better, it’s up to us, the consumer, to fight for each other. That’s being intersectional. Lifting up those around you.”

While the slow-fashion community is small, its members have loud voices and those voices are having an impact. For example, Son de Flor’s fans left comments on the brands social media pages pointing out their affection for the brand and wishing to see the diversity of the buyers reflected in the marketing, which led to a change in who appears in their ads. In Jesse Kamm’s case, her new season features a range of racial and body-type diversity, which is in direct response to criticisms.

Customers have brought on some change in the larger fashion industry as well. As a result of the backlash to racist products, Prada formed a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, co-chaired by Ava DuVernay. Studies show that boycotts can have an impact, even if they only serve to change the way people think about an issue. The voices of consumers do matter, even if the results aren’t immediate.

What can brands do better

Representation in sustainable fashion matters—and not just for the bottom line. Since internal diversity leads to improved company performance, it follows that diverse marketing drives engagement, which affects a brand’s bottom line.

Homogenous leadership and staffing often leads to monochromatic marketing, which empowered fans of the brand took note of, and responded by holding Son de Flor accountable which led to the changes seen on the company’s social media pages.

It’s not perfect, and many brands need to follow suit—but many took up the charge early on in their lifecycles; indie slow-fashion brands like Elizabeth Suzann have long integrated diversity of color and shape into its marketing strategies, and many others, like Alice Alexander, Jamie and the Jones, and Everybody World are doing the same.

Spending your money with a brand that isn’t throwing its weight behind diversity initiatives serves to reward them for this behavior. It keeps privilege, and therefore power, within the grasp of a small group who have claimed the dominant culture. Calling them out, asking to be included, and withholding money until they do are the primary ways consumers can exercise their power.