Of all the shocks that the past few weeks and months have brought to all our lives, one of the biggest for me as a black woman working in the fashion industry is that finally people are realising that racism is more than calling someone a derogatory name.
The killing of George Floyd while in police custody and the global outrage and protest that followed is bringing a dawning collective understanding that white supremacy relies on the exploitation of black and brown people.
In the fashion industry the evidence to support this awakening is rife. Racism in fashion runs to the very core of the industry, from the experience of black employees at companies such as @reformation to the lack of black models in your Instagram feeds.
Being black in the fashion industry in the UK is knowing that all the makeup artists in a room have no idea how to colour match your foundation. It is seeing a white woman monetising styles that you and your peers have been consistently ridiculed for. It is going to a press show and people assuming your business will never be able to afford to stock their clothing.
Yet it is the millions of black and brown people making our clothes in factories thousands of miles away who bear the heaviest burden.
The fast fashion industry has been reliant on the exploitation of garment workers since its conception. The UK spends billions on clothes every year and yet some garment workers only take home £20 a week.
Brands have created a production model that keeps garment workers poor and working in unsafe conditions to maximise their own profits. The buying practices of fast fashion include turning a blind eye to illegal subcontracting and allowing forced and unpaid overtime. These practices have incentivised the erosion of garment worker rights by manufacturers and government.
The economic exploitation that fast fashion is reliant upon is a legacy of colonialism. From the 1500s until the middle of the 20th century, European imperialism was a way to create extractive states and oppress non-white people.
The legacies continue to this day. Western consumers want cheaper clothes and brands want to make larger profit margins. The knock-on injustices and exploitation in fashion’s supply chains are either accepted by consumers or obscured by conscious marketing campaigns peddling female empowerment.
And now, when the Covid-19 epidemic has presented the world with the greatest challenge we have faced in a century, we have seen the fashion industry abandon these same workers.
In many countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, brands are refusing to pay for billions of pounds worth of orders they had already placed with suppliers. What that means is manufacturers that purchased material destined for our high streets are now stuck with piles and piles of unwanted clothes. They are also unable to pay their workers. Hundreds of thousands of garment workers will lose their jobs because of this refusal to pay up.
For there to be meaningful change, brands need to pay garment workers living wages . It is actually that simple. This is especially true if the person who owns the brand is a billionaire.
Even though the fashion industry is making small steps in increasing outward representation and equality – 47% of models at New York’s most recent fashion week were of people of colour – there is still a long way to go.
Black people need equal representation at board level, across management levels and in the creative spaces. For a cohort to be representative it needs to make up at least 30% of the overall staff. It is not enough to put one black person in a room or on a billboard.
And while the burden of responsibility lies with the businesses making huge profits, we also have a responsibility as consumers.
If you are planning on raiding the high street for its post-lockdown sales the only message you are sending is that you are more than willing to let them continue to leave garment workers in perpetual poverty so that you can get a new slogan T-shirt stating “black lives matter” or “girl boss”.
Instead rethink and help us bring change. Join the PayUp movement that is demanding fashion brands honour their commitments to overseas workers. Support The Fashion Revolution and Fair Wear Foundation which are fighting for brands to treat garment workers with respect.
Support black-owned businesses, sign up to their newsletters. Only buy from ethical brands that are transparent about their business practices. Sign petitions and donate to causes that are making a difference such as: Stop the Illegal Export of Riot Equipment to the US from the UK, Make White Privilege and Systemic Racism a Compulsory Part of the British Education Course and The 15% Pledge.
White allies, do it now: pull up.
• Kalkidan Legesse is a social entrepreneur and black woman. As an ethical fashion activist, she is working to make the industry truly sustainable and truly inclusive She can be found on Instagram at @wowsancho