Why decolonization will always be a part of the sustainable fashion movement.
This piece was originally published on Ethical Style Journal.
Decolonization. It’s a term that has become quite ubiquitous in social justice-oriented spaces online. But, what does it mean in practice?
Before understanding what decolonization means, it’s important to understand what colonial practice is, in the general sense. At its core, colonial practice is about using extraction and exploitation of resources—from the natural environment, to labor—as the means for exponential financial gain. And when we look at how capitalism operates today, it’s colonial in nature as well. The fashion industry is a prime example.
Like many global industries that rely on production in the Global South for consumption by the Global North, the fashion industry is rooted in an unequal exchange. The unequal exchange is often the exchange of manufactured products, produced at shockingly low prices due to labor that costs near nothing, to be sold at higher margins in the Global North. We know this to be especially true for the fashion industry, as it’s largely operated on the Global Race to The Bottom—the idea that brands scramble to produce as fast as they can, as much as they can, as cheap as they can—which often means heading to the countries that are still reeling from the impacts of colonization, making them an especially vulnerable workforce (read: the propelling tool of exploitation).
As noted by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, “During all the stages of capitalism, the plunder of the resources of the peripheries, the oppression of colonized peoples, their direct or indirect exploitation by capital, remain the common characteristics of the phenomenon of colonialism.”
So, what does it mean then, to decolonize?
Sustainability as an unlearning
As someone who works full-time in sustainability, I’m often asked about my early relationship with nature. Despite the palatable narrative that I came out of the womb with an inherent love for the outdoors, which then spurred me into the world of sustainability to save the world’s finite natural resources—my story is quite otherwise. I didn’t grow up with any inherent connection to nature, or a particular love for the outdoors. Like many first-generation immigrants, my family was tasked with survival. However, the immigrant experience, especially coming from a low-income family, informed what I often call the soul of sustainability. From frugality, the idea of extending the life of the things you own, to not seeing things as disposable.
All of these ideas are often inherent with low-income communities of color, not only as a cultural norm, but also as an economic necessity. In my late teen years, my grandparents moved into our home. This is when I mark a more concrete understanding of sustainability and my relationship to the earth. During my time living in an intergenerational home, I got a greater glimpse into the lives, and practice, of my grandparents who were farmers in Punjab. My grandparents exposed an understanding of sustainability that was interwoven with our Punjabi lineage: stewardship of the land, reusing, creating at home. I remember my grandpa, now in his 80s, taking the seeds of the fruit we ate to plant in the backyard. I remember my grandmother, who would make clothes herself, repair, redesign old ones, etc.
At this point, I had already been a part of the sustainable fashion movement—which was largely informed by conscious consumerism. But these experiences informed a new understanding of sustainability…beyond consumption. My relationship to the environment around me, or sustainability, as a journey that would be deeply intertwined with a return to ancestral wisdom, my South Asian roots, unlearning ideas of “wealth” that were informed by the West.
Sustainability as unlearning. Sustainability as a means for decolonization.
Decolonization can’t be reduced to just a consumer act
As noted by Celine Semaan in The Cut, “most major clothing and apparel manufacturers, and the data mapping it provides show that world trade routes are mostly the same as they were 150 years ago at the height of European colonial exploitation.” Today’s fashion industry, and its supply chain, reveal their colonial past. So what does that mean for social justice, sustainability, and the power structures within the industry? Once we come to understand how the fashion industry is predicated upon extraction and exploitation, it’s not hard to see how the industry has been racialized, gendered, and intersects with class. Think about the idea of “Voting With Your Dollar”: who gets to do that? Those with access to disposable income. Think about the fashion industry’s diversity problem: a prime example of Eurocentric beauty as the ideal standard of beauty. Think about the recontextualization of sustainability as a western concept, when it has always been ingrained in the cultures of BIPOC communities.
What will decolonization look like in practice?
To decolonize the fashion industry as brands is to reorient our understanding of:
Power and Hierarchy
Who has access and agency in this space? The sustainable fashion movement must center BIPOC voices as leading actors—communities that have nearly always been historically sustainable, despite the colonial hangover their cultures have experienced.
Wealth and Inequality
As COVID continues to spread, factories from Bangladesh to Haiti have garment workers returning to work. Despite advice from Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health, hundreds of factories have been allowed to reopen. Emerging reports show that many factories do not have adequate safety measures to protect workers against the risk of infection. At the same time, workers continue to protest over unpaid wages after brands and retailers cancelled orders and delayed payments to their suppliers in response to the pandemic. According to publicly available supplier lists and media reports, companies sourcing from the factories now reopening include Tesco, Sainsbury’s, C&A and Primark.
The fashion industry cannot operate without the high-skilled labor of garment workers, yet CEOs make millions off the backs of those that earn the least.
Metrics of success
Going back to the colonial idea of extraction and exploitation of finite resources as the means for “infinite” capital gain, the world is in dire need of reimagining what “success” looks like in the business sphere. Can “growth” be achieved without a negative impact on people and planet? Yes. We simply need a different kind of growth that is better for the environment. More companies need to explore the idea of degrowth.
Speed of production
The foundation of fast fashion is speed, at the expense of quality, the environment, and garment workers’ rights. We know the idea of choosing quality over quantity as consumers, but many brands are often predicated on creating a product that does not last, in order to further exasperate a consumer culture based on cheap goods that will last a few months at most.
Environmental sustainability is a key part of decolonization—the idea of returning to indigenous understandings that honor our symbiotic relationship to this planet. As it currently stands, fast fashion is tied to the fossil fuel industry. Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester—a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015. The staggering use of synthetic fabrics in fashion is concerning when we look at fashion through its current linear model of production, use and disposal (as opposed to the circular fashion economy). We must begin to see each product of clothing as a product of agriculture. Unless it’s made of synthetics, every garment will trace back as an agricultural product—whether it’s cotton, flax, hemp, etc. This framing is incredibly important for us to understand which fabrics to prioritize as an industry—especially when considering the amount of resources required to produce it.
The future of fashion, in order to sustainably survive, lies in regenerative agriculture, which produces stronger crops while creating soil that actually sequesters carbon from the environment.
Not only is lesser impact possible in the fashion world, but also positive impact.