Discussing problems of accessibility, and particularly of size inclusion, in the ethical fashion industry, and what we imply when we tell people that “ethical” fashion is better.
I've observed and been a part of several complex discussions on race and privilege in the last few months and there's one thing I keep coming back to.
I (we?) tend to write and speak to an audience that looks like me, sounds like me, that shares a part of my context and history.
One of the fallouts of writing a blog that is at least in part confessional is that I share webs of thoughts that are, at their root, selfish. They are about me, what I'm experiencing, and what I'm learning.
And so, as a white woman reared in an Evangelical Christian, politically conservative culture, I tend to share "aha" moments and theoretical explorations as they happen to me. I've talked about colonialism, Capitalism, privilege, Christian hypocrisy, ignorance, and humility with a framing that assumes that my reader needs to hear about those things, because, of course, *I* need to hear about those things.
But I am now recognizing that my reader can be anyone at all. And sometimes my framing, while useful for an audience that is some iteration of "me," can read as trite to someone who has not only explored these questions in greater depth but may, in fact, have been born into a reality that has forced them to absorb and answer to these negative paradigms since birth.
I apologize for assumptions that belittle those experiences.
I think it's normal, and necessary, to speak to personal experiences. And I think I have much more to offer, ideologically, to people who come from where I come from simply because I can speak from a place of intimate understanding. We have work to do, and it helps to find the people you share cultural guideposts with when you're talking about ethics, progress, and change. But that's also where echo chambers come in.
So, I'm not really asking for resources. I'm not really asking for anything at all. I'm simply exploring the psychological reality that people listen to people who look and sound like them, and I see that as a big part of the work I do here. But I never want that to come at the expense of real, intentional welcome.
If you ever want to reach out and share your thoughts and ideas, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Injustice is systemic AND personal, and so your individual experience matters.
P.S. I just discovered Adrienne Maree Brown's writings on transformative justice last night, and I find it very useful for framing discussions around trauma and privilege in a way that leads to accountable insight. I highly recommend it.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address,
August 16, 1967
...There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are questions that must be asked.
Now, don't think that you have me in a bind today. I'm not talking about communism.
What I'm saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit—One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying. He didn't say, Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that. He didn't say, Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery. He didn't say, Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively. He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic—that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, Nicodemus, you must be born again.
He said, in other words, Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them—make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, America, you must be born again!
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction. Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.
Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied...
Welcome to the Complexity series: posts intended to explore social justice and ethics issues with nuance, understanding, and ultimately hope. I will bring in several guest writers throughout the series, so stay tuned.
The US political climate in the Trump age is burdensome to say the least.
Fear yields anxiety yields rage yields exhaustion.
We are traumatized, the systemically and personally vulnerable among our population especially so.
We are confused, and the President and his allies continually sow more confusion.
We feel hopeless, because every small thing we
do feels meaningless in the face of a multitude of new human rights abuses and uncertainties.
Desperation and Prophetic Imagination
I wake up most mornings feeling a weight on my chest,
trying to navigate a world that's not necessarily worse than before but with "solutions" that feel decidedly less clear-cut.
I, and I suspect many of my fellow Americans, have short circuited to the point that we've lost our sense of what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls our "prophetic imagination," the ability to see hope beyond the hazy horizon.
A few weeks ago I sat down to watch a film that had been described to me as "the story of a pastor serving a church with declining attendance." That sounds quaint compared to the reality. Instead,
, the mood becoming darker and darker as the story trudged on. The main character - yes, he was a pastor at a small church - desperately tried to cling to paradoxical hope in the face of certain disaster, but the realities of the world and his inability to find meaning led him to only two choices: commit violence against perceived enemies or commit violence against himself. The ending is surreal and confusing, but it got its point across.
I didn't know whether to weep or dig in my heels in determination and commit to find joy.
War Language and "Us-versus-Them"
But let me get back to that ending, because I think it tells us something about the way overburdened and scared people see the world. In the face of certain doom, everything is a hell scape. You either defeat or get defeated, kill or get killed. Shoot first or suffer the consequences.
Too much of the social justice rhetoric in this country is operating from a place of certain doom. But if you're dying anyway, if the whole world is about to blow up, what are you fighting for?
To contextualize this further, I am specifically speaking to a kind of purity culture or ideological fundamentalism that occurs in spaces where people don't know each other very well, particularly on social media, a decontextualized soap box that,
, turns us into our worst selves. Like "the enemy" in traditional warfare, it's easy to flatten out people so that you don't have to feel guilty about metaphorically "beating" them.
, climate journalist and (former?) Mennonite - a Pacifist Christian tradition - Kate Yoder asks the question, "Can we save the world from climate change without declaring war?" She draws on the work of linguist Deborah Tannen, who wrote a book on the subject 20 years ago. Here's the gist of her argument, taken from the article:
There’s a “pervasive warlike culture” in the U.S. that leads us to approach just about any major issue as if it were “a battle or game in which winning or losing is the main concern,” she wrote. It’s a deeply entrenched cultural tendency that has shaped politics, education, law, and the media.
Because much of language is metaphor - for instance, to say we must "defeat the enemy" in the context of debate is not a literal statement and operates in some ways as hyperbole - which metaphors we choose to use matters. Language, in a sense, can be
, but even that is a kind of war metaphor.
Contextualizing political, social, and moral debates within a linguistic system that heavily draws on war narratives not only reinforces a kind of violence, it also creates a false dichotomy, an "us-versus-them" format, that disguises complexity, and thus ultimately disguises and manipulates truth.
But this isn't just a problem on a philosophical level. It affects our ability to change people's minds. According to Yoder, psychologists call this an "intractable conflict," saying:
An us-versus-them narrative turns people away from logic and into the realm of emotion and values. As the conflict drags on without resolution, partisans become increasingly bewildered by the other side’s beliefs and actions.
So even if I believe in my heart of hearts that the best way to deal with someone I disagree with is a full-fledged public take-down, it is a psychological reality that I'm making the problem worse. But maybe I'm not concerned about the long game, content to sow havoc and reap discord?
Maybe some people see the take-down as a kind of necessary reckoning, but I question how often people
anticipate both the broad and deep repercussions of their debate strategies. Whether we like it or not, we - "the good guys" - are just as likely to fall prey to the emotional pull of the false dichotomy as our "enemy" (what's wild about writing this is that I cannot escape violent metaphor even as I object to it). It is more satisfying to categorize someone in one of two distinct camps - an us or a them - than to take the space to acknowledge our own biases before responding (I have to admit I have made missteps on this point, which I'm only now fully understanding).
Now We See in a Mirror Dimly
But how does war language propagate in social spaces and ideological camps? To my mind, in at least three ways:
False narratives of scarcity: the largely unfounded myth that there is not enough intellectual and empathetic "space" to go around so we must take it from others
Charismatic leaders: individuals who craft compelling and even empowering narratives that, nevertheless, aren't quite true
Predominant ideological frameworks: those powerful, invisible idea-maps that often have more to do with power and profit than with collective flourishing
Having grown up in a religious culture that bordered on fundamentalism, I am extremely sensitive to the signs of ideological manipulation and believe very strongly that even compassionate and just ideas can rot on the vine if not fostered carefully.
Because of this, a healthy skepticism is always warranted. We must ask more questions!
It is easy to think that the world as we see it is
the whole world
, but this goes back to the problem of losing our prophetic imagination. There's a way to honor people's lived experience while resisting universal truth claims that don't properly amalgamate other, potentially disparate lived experiences.
The truth is often buried deep within the data. What we know is not everything. And we will never know enough.
Keeping that in mind provides the kind of humility that allows us to hold our heads high at the same time that we unclench our fists, and this is precisely the orientation we need to work through complicated, seemingly insurmountable issues.
So, what do we do now?
Let me be clear, or as clear as I can be. People have a right to feel their feelings, and a right to speak them. People have a "right" to free speech, too. But it would be disingenuous to act as if what we're
justifies any and all actions. And beyond that, our implied or explicit roles as activists and educators requires more of us, if only because our stated goal is progress, and progress means we don't always get to while away in sackcloth and ashes. There is work to do.
And work requires crystal clarity, not getting distracted by scarcity models of self-defense, narratives that require an antagonist, infighting that sows confusion, and circular arguments that lead to an active minefield of intractable conflicts.
For those of us who have placed the mantle of educator-activist on our shoulders, our responsibility is broader and deeper than a battle cry. We are moderators, guardians, and colleagues to our students, and we have an obligation to keep the doors wide open.
Which means, above all, that we must put down our own weapons of violent language and false dichotomies. We must beat our swords into plowshares, making way for new growth, because as they say in the musical, Rent,
"the opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation."
We are cultivators of complexity, prophets of abundance.
After a month of stewing over an incident that occurred to me online (and admittedly, having to realize and begin to seek treatment for a mental health issue I had been trying to self-treat for the last year), I heard myself saying that I would get over it "if I had a chance to defend myself." I was in the middle of thinking over this piece, and I realized that
I was using war language,
because building a defense is a product of "us-versus-them" thinking.
But I don't want to do work that forces me to adopt the predominant rhetorical strategy without a second thought. I don't think we make a better world using the same ineffective methods.
I don't know what that open field of abundance looks like and I'm not sure how to get there, but there's no question in my mind that we are creating enemies because we think we have to, that we are
ourselves in a model of doom and destruction because it didn't occur to us that there was another way.
As for me, I am leaning on paradoxical hope, hope in the face of whipping winds and children's cries and smoldering cities. A hope that resists the impulse to categorize and conclude, because it knows that
is not the end game.
I hold onto a vision of equity and thriving, not because I always believe it is possible or see the path clearly in front of me, but because I know that to abandon it is to abandon everything.
So, if we disagree and things get heated, this will be my response to you: "This is not a war and you are not my enemy. How do we fix this, together?"
(I found this life-changing)
From the systems perspective, this patriarchal notion of power is both inaccurate and dysfunctional. That is because life processes are intrinsically self-organizing. Power, then, which is the ability to effect change, works from the bottom up more reliably and organically than from the top down. It is not power over, but power with; this is what systems scientists call "synergy." Life systems evolve flexibility and intelligence, not by closing off from the environment and erecting walls of defense, but by opening ever wider to the currents of matter-energy and information. It is in this interaction that life systems grow, integrating and differentiating...
We may well wonder why the old kind of power, as we see it enacted around us and indeed above us, seems so effective. Many who wield it seem to get what they want: money, fame, control over others' lives; but they achieve this at a substantial cost both to themselves and to the larger system. Domination requires strong defenses and, like a suit of armor, restricts our vision and movement. Reducing flexibility and responsiveness, it cuts us off from fuller and freer participation in life. Power over is dysfunctional to the larger system because it inhibits diversity and feedback; it obstructs systemic self-organization, fostering uniformity and entropy.
I thought it would be wise to sit with my feelings through the entire month of December because I've been in a near-constant fragile state that has made it hard for me to engage patiently and thoughtfully with any disagreement, but after a week of zero engagement with my own blog - no writing, no photography, no backend work - I realize that I can't really stay away.
I do feel very strongly that the ethical fashion community is desperate for some rules of engagement
, an underlying set of values that determine how we communicate with each other in pursuit of building a more just world. It's very tempting to always be looking outward toward the CAUSE, but movements are about coalitions, and change occurs when many voices join together and say the same thing.
Good advocacy is like a high functioning choir: different voice parts, different people. Young and old, rich and poor, a diversity of ethnicities, races, cultural ties, and backgrounds. When you sing in a choir, you aren't listening to your own voice as intently as you're listening to the ones around you. You aren't adapting the piece to suit your needs - it's always about the collective, driven toward a single goal: beauty, gravitas, meaning.
A culture that has bought the lie of
- that there is not enough to go around - cannot function as a coalition or as a choir, because we are always pitted against each other in competition for what's left
, whether that's social media followers, safety, power, or physical resources. And so, much of the rhetoric becomes about
The reality is that we have the tools to live abundantly, but it requires a total rethinking of current theoretical models. It might even require that we leave the "like culture" of Instagram and Twitter behind in order to rehabilitate our minds. I refuse to believe any jargon-filled rhetorical models that claim a type of violence is required to bring about an abundant world. I seek reconciliation, not vengeance. And so we are accountable to one another and we have hard conversations, but we never stop believing that reconciliation is possible. Even when there's no hope.
when all we see is darkness.
I wrote this piece last fall when the events of August 12th in Charlottesville were still fresh in my mind, and when the trauma of that day kept showing up in the form of panic attacks (they still happen but not as frequently). I think I opted not to publish at that time because I wasn't ready to engage with the feedback. But a year later, this post is still relevant, and still important. Both terrible and beautiful things have funneled through the noise of social media in the last year, proving that it's an important tool for advocacy and connection, but we still have work to do.
(I attended a wonderfully life affirming sustainable fashion event in DC last weekend that I'm hoping to write about soon. But I need time to catch up.)
I'm starting to notice a major weak point in activist circles.
There's a growing gulf between those of us who are part of online - mainly twitter - social justice communities and those of us who choose to remain offline (or at least out of twitter conversations).
Active users of the platform have developed their own shorthand for talking about the issues of the day, and even changed the definitions of common words to suit their needs. There is nothing wrong with that on the surface - it helps people articulate pressing concerns quickly to those already
in the know
. But what happens when these conversations become known to people operating outside the twittersphere?
A friend of mine recently shared an article that claimed that we should stop "humanizing" white supremacists. The author, a person of color, was responding to the unsatisfactory way Black Lives Matter activists at a Trump rally dialogued - or rather, failed to dialogue - with dangerous ideas about the way society should be structured. I agreed with her that the messaging was far too soft, that the BLM cohort, likely out of justifiable fear, tried to seek common ground to the detriment of voicing their legitimate concerns.
The argument broke down, however, because of the way she was using the term,
. To humanize someone is to "give someone a human character." Essentially, to acknowledge their
. The only possible implication of an argument that says we should stop humanizing someone is that we should
And that, surely, can't be the argument the author intended to make.
Within the very particular online activist context her argument lived in, maybe she meant that we should stop making excuses for the poor ideas of Trump supporters, or that we should stop implying that they are generally
people (though, I would argue that people are walking paradoxes, and often do behave humanely in spite of their political leanings). But this did not come through for me, a casual Twitter user on the borders of online activist circles, so there's no possible way it could come through for a regular person. (The website has since
And that's a problem, because it means we've gotten to a point where communication, even between potential allies, is becoming nearly impossible.
And it gets worse. Not only do entrenched virtual activists use jargon and make references to conversations that are inherently exclusive because they require a high degree of participation in tech-centered social media platforms, they expect those of us who are not fluent in their medium to respond to political events according to the unspoken rules of these exclusive communities. They make us feel guilty for not "showing up" to the counter protests we simply never heard were happening. They silence our confusion assuming our genuine questions are an attempt to distract them from their goals.
They don't realize that their virtue signaling looks like the ritual of a religion we've never heard of.
Look, I'm not trying to discount the good intentions of activists, and I think social media has been an asset to contemporary social justice movements.
But is it fair to expect everyone to be plugged into virtual spaces?
The answer is obvious to me: no. Online activists are operating in a space that many either don't or don't want to have access to. And I tend to think that since we're physical beings living in a tangible world talking about material problems, it's ok if we're not constantly checking our phones and updating our feeds.
The people who created this technology
, and potentially detrimental to our ability to thrive. If anything, we should be engaging less online and more in our local communities. Old fashioned word-of-mouth and weekly planning meetings should suffice, and they foster the face-to-face time that
, not to mention allow for a proper analysis of body language and tone that contribute to more productive, less caustic conversations (I know I've been turned off by organizations
are doing good things in my community because their online tone comes off as terse and scoffing).
Of course, many online activists already do meet in person, but I'm suggesting a thoughtful insistence on making these physical meetings the primary mode of communication
rather than the monthly afterthought.
And, while traditional modes of communication will slow information down a bit, maybe that's a good thing...
A related problem to tech-based exclusivity is our insistence that actions must be taken now, that solutions can be found in the space of 5 minutes and 280 characters. We would do well to put our heads together long enough to consider the long term, to predict unintended consequences, to find the weak points in our methods and correct course before we lose control over it. I intentionally abstain from long form twitter activism because I find that it too often feels like empty performance.
Showing up matters, but so does strategy, and solutions come when people decide that community matters enough to fight for an equitable one.
When we demonize allies, accept ideologically fundamentalist arguments about human behavior, and demand performance from people who were simply having dinner on the patio and missed your ping about the protest, we cause undue harm.
Maybe we even start to forget that activism was never about who can yell the loudest or preach the best or craft the perfect meme, that it's always been about empowering the "little people" in society to build a human pyramid so high that it rivals the Trump Towers of this world.
Ethical fashion has a racial representation problem. While we celebrate the women, predominantly women of color, who make our clothing once a year during Fashion Revolution - and maybe a couple more times around the Holidays - in almost all cases, we see white faces and white cultural expectations plastered across Instagram, in marketing campaigns, and in product photos. This dichotomy hurts people of color because it always establishes white people as saviors and people of color as mere beneficiaries of care.
The reality is far more complicated than that, which is why I reached out to several women in the ethical fashion space to ask difficult questions about representation. I'll be sharing a couple more interviews later on, but today I'd like to introduce you to Tavie Meier. Tavie and I have known each other for a couple of years, having worked together on collaborations when she owned an ethical fashion brand, MadeFAIR. I encourage you to read this interview with openness and understanding, then voice your thoughts in the comments.
StyleWise: You're a person of color working in an industry that is still fraught with a white savior complex. I think you've mentioned before that white people in this space are sometimes seemingly oblivious to the fact that your lived experience is not theirs. Can you elaborate on that dynamic and talk about the issues in the messaging and attitudes of the fair trade and ethical fashion movement?
Tavie Meier: I grew up in Littleton, Colorado and was often the token minority within my friend group. For example, I worked at a movie theater, and the staff dressed-up as James Bond characters for The World is Not Enough premiere. My manager assigned me Solitaire (Jane Seymour in yellow face). I've also been Princess Jasmine, Scary Spice, and as recently as last year, I was expected to be Missandei for a Game of Thrones party. (I wanted to be Margery Tyrell.) Costumes seem harmless, but it's illustrative of how we perceive "the other." I'm more white European than I am Chinese, Arab, or Black, yet I'm still considered “non-white” because of my skin color.
It's like a dripping faucet: the drips, themselves, aren't bad. They get more annoying as time goes on and soon you're fixing your faucet with a sledgehammer.
Fashion Revolution and #whomademyclothes is ethical fashion's dripping faucet.
It perpetuates the racial divide by showing predominately brown women as the benefactors of white women's money. It's a glamorized "White Man's Burden," believing - as a society - poor people require intervention and oversight. It strips them of their fundamental right to privacy.
Sure, sometimes US-based studios post photos of themselves for Fash Rev Week, but those instances are small businesses piggy-backing off Fash Rev's marketing reach. If I'm purchasing a piece from a small studio, I already know who the designer is.
SW: Can you speak more to your point on Fashion Revolution? Is there a way to participate without causing further harm?
TM: I worked on Dorsu's Fash Rev campaign this year, knowing the co-founders, Hanna and Kunthear, wanted to avoid the racial divide we see in the #imadeyourclothes photos that would inundate Instagram that week. The idea of the "How to be an everyday advocate" was a sort-of sequel to Hanna's past Fash Rev article on using the power you already have. WhatFash Rev is missing is an actual call-to-action that will have measurable results beyond social media impressions, because the easiest way to get an Instagram like is to show your "generosity," and in ethical fashion's current climate, that is really just veiled racism.
SW: It is my theory that part of ethical fashion’s lack of inclusivity has to do not only with continuing white privilege, but with the fact that the fair trade movement as we think of it today was founded by white Evangelical Christians who, however inadvertently, adopted a colonialist mindset when working with artisans outside the US. This implicit/explicit framing attracts white people because we are less able to see the outlines of that problematic framework.
TM: Let me first acknowledge that I wouldn’t exist if not for Food for the Hungry, an Evangelical INGO that my dad worked for in 1980, when he met my mom in a Thai refugee camp for Khmer Rouge survivors.
Having said that, I have a well-documented dislike of charity for reasons that required a 2000-word guest post on the Note Passer.
I don’t think the act of charitable giving is bad – it’s charity structures that are cyclical and unproductive.
The reason I switched from charity to ethical fashion isn’t too different than a lot of ethical fashion founders who have rooted their mission in the New Testament. To be Christian means to be charitable, and, ultimately, they’re combining this fundamental aspect of who they are with capitalism – a cornerstone of the United States.
You know Christian-based brands because they use words like hope and peace in their names, and often quote Bible verses within a click of a landing page. Because charity imagery has historically been colonial (white spokesperson standing next to brown, malnourished person “in need”), some ethical brands may feel they need to use this to show their customers they, too, are “doing good” by making a purchase.
Using words like hope, peace, and [gag] redemption is even more problematic than colonial imagery. Many of these brands work with makers in majority Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist countries and create an association between these countries (and their majority religions) with the absence of hope and peace, in need of “redemption” by way of making purses “designed in Texas (or wherever).” I’ve seen some that make mention they work with Christian organizations, which then makes me wonder if they feel non-Christian or secular organizations are unworthy hope, peace, and redemption, which isn’t very Christian.
SW: Some brands say that they "have to use" conventionally attractive, white women for their marketing for things to sell. Do you think this is a legitimate claim? I know that in blogging, for instance, there is some truth to the idea that you'll be more successful if you fit certain stereotypes of attractiveness and behavior.
TM: There’s a marketing principle about how we buy things from people who look like us. It might give this claim some legitimacy, but that's about as much credit as I'm willing to give it.
Saying they "have to use conventionally attractive, white women" means one of two things:
They’re only planning to sell to conventionally attractive, white women.
They don’t mind selling to women of color, but they don’t want our faces and bodies representing their brands.
When ethical brands say they have to use conventionally attractive, white women, I assume they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re trying to emulate images of beauty they see in media, which indicates the types of media they choose to consume. If you’re only following white bloggers and reading news written by white journalists, then of course you’ll believe you need conventionally attractive, white women to sell products.
SW: I've been writing on ethical fashion for over 5 years now and in some ways I'm more discouraged than ever. It seems like the urge to sell-sell-sell has made people cut corners and lose some of the initial thoughtfulness I came here for. What do you think consumers should be paying attention to in order to cut through the marketing BS?
TM: The problem is brands sell what they believe people need or want, and therefore justify their unsavory methods by convincing themselves they're solving a problem or turn a blind eye for the sake of "financial autonomy for the most oppressed people in the world." Therefore, they’re acting in such a way they believe is in the best interests of their businesses. In fact, I bet some people would agree with everything I’ve said here and remain blissfully unaware they’re doing anything wrong.
As a consumer, I do a “selfie test.” I’ll go to a brand’s Instagram account and look for a couple of things:
Tokenism in their editorial photos, meaning the same person of color shows up throughout the entire account.
Are the people in the their “corporate” behind-the-scenes photos disproportionately white compared to the people in their “workshop” behind-the-scenes photos?
Have they been tagged in loads of customer photos but only re-gram the ones of conventionally attractive, white women?
If I notice just one of these happening, then I take my money elsewhere.
I’d also like to make mention that minorities have always felt discouraged by all fashion because of cultural appropriation, sizing, or representation. There’s an equilibrium in ethical fashion, where middleclass (mostly white) women enter it as idealists then feel discouraged. On the other end of the spectrum, women of color enter it already cynical, but with the urge to make it better. For the idealists, being retweeted once will feel like failure, whereas the cynics will view one retweet as one human being listening and identifying to what they have to say.
SW: More and more, I think this movement has to become intersectional. Do you have any suggestions for how to incorporate broader social justice issues into the way we talk about and market ethical fashion?
TM: The best way to do it is to just….do it. As part of an elaborate research project for MadeFAIR (which I haven’t finished yet), I studied audience engagement of five major, ethical fashion brands to see how breaking news affects their Facebook posts. So far (this is ongoing), I found that across the board, audience engagement decreased by an average of 30% after Reuters reported on the GOP’s family separation policy. There was one exception: Eileen Fisher. The reason why theirs increased is because of this post:
There’s a chance they promoted this post, but then I went to Instagram and discovered the same announcement received about 5x the number of likes and comments as the posts before and after.
Now, Eileen Fisher received mixed reactions – some people were stoked about this, others were angry their favorite brand used their platform to take a political stance. As a shrewd marketer, I see a brand taking a massive marketing risk that will end up translating to increased sales because, as a consumer, I see “my money” (their profits) donated to a cause I like.
SW: You've been working in this industry for years, both as a business owner and marketer. Have you seen any progress in inclusion? Do you think certain components of the niche actually deter that progress?
TM: I see progress in established brands who, over time, have realized the importance of inclusion.
For example, Mata Traders has not only the most options for extended sizing but also a racially diverse group of models on their website. Tonle also has one of the most lifestyle-inclusive Instagram accounts (I’m 100% here for tattoos and pink hair), and it’s impossible to ignore Everlane actively embracing androgyny and showcasing bloggers from all walks of life – their website taught me the word “gamine.” Even Reformation – the poster child for coolness and leggy models – has started including plus-size women in their social media imagery. Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention Soko, the first brand (that I noticed, anyway) whose models have always been representative of their jewelry’s cultural roots.
These are all hugely successful, US-based brands who embrace diversity rather than seeing it as a detriment to sales.
However, many new brands seem oblivious to these examples, and that lacking awareness and research is ethical fashion’s biggest hindrance.
Maybe they're using their friends to save money (big mistake - professional models are professional for a reason), or perhaps they've never had to consider how awful it feels to buy your brown child a white Barbie. I doubt they’ve consciously ignored the void of representation, but pair their ignorance and that desire to "do good" with the US’ systematic racism, and what we see is the internalized correlation of brown people with poverty, and white people with wealth and beauty.
Thank you, Tavie!
. Text, photos, and stories are my own.
As a child of the nineties and early aughts, I was saturated in environmentalism.
From Fern Gully to Animal Planet documentaries to political conversations on climate change, it was impossible not to know something about earth's dire state, and our responsibility to protect and restore it.
I'm sure I watched hundreds of nature documentaries growing up, but the topic I came back to again and again was the rainforest. Simply put, it was enchanting, and as a young kid with an active imagination, who wouldn't be mesmerized by tales of jaguars, river dolphins, toothy piranha, poisonous frogs, sloths, monkeys, not to mention the vast mystery of life bustling beneath the canopy on the dark forest floor? While other kids were playing Oregon Trail, I was busy playing Amazon Trail (no, I never finished - spear hunting for fish is hard!).
Honestly, I'm still enchanted.
I've watched Planet Earth and David Attenborough. I've seen Naked & Afraid and read about Victorian orchid hunting expeditions in the rainforests of South America. I've even visited the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. But it's not just me. It's clear that, as a culture, we keep coming back to the rainforest. Why is that?
This is mere speculation, but I think some of it has to do with its unapologetic alive-ness.
Teeming with thousands of species of animal, insect, and plant. Revealing at once the fragility and forthrightness of our small, mortal lives. Rainforests - and really, forests in general - are natural cathedrals, wide enough to hold our wonder, enclosed enough to recall the comfort of the womb. I might sound like I've lost it, but I really feel this way in the forest, and I bet if you quiet yourself for a few minutes in the woods, you'll understand what I'm saying.
The Work of Rainforest Alliance
It's not just rainforests: the goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to sustain and replenish earth's forest ecosystems through accountable, strategic, global initiatives that work to address the key factors behind deforestation and soil depletion.
Did you know that
daily across the globe due to the timber industry, development, and plant and animal agriculture?
Forests are vital not just because hundreds of thousands of species depend on them for their survival...
25% of the earth's population relies on forests to provide sustenance and agricultural jobs
70 million indigenous people live off of the bounty provided by forests
70% of the global poor are negatively impacted by soil degradation and deforestation
Trees are the greatest absorber of carbon after the ocean
By sustaining micro-climates, forests regulate "ocean currents, wind patterns, and rainfall"
Quite frankly, we can't survive without thriving forests. It's time to make them a priority before it's too late.
Agriculture is responsible for 80% of deforestation, so it's important that we understand how individual and collective demand for certain goods, like coffee and beef for instance, makes us complicit.
Three Easy Ways to Contribute to Thriving Forests
Take an "everything in moderation" approach
with nonessential foods like chocolate, coffee, and meat to reduce your overall carbon footprint and decrease demand for deforestation.
When buying "unavoidable" paper goods
- like toilet paper for instance - look for an indication of sustainable forestry practices or the use of recycled paper.
, and farming policies, that are sustainable and work to re-enrich soil over time.
When these things are not possible, or when the path is a bit murkier, it's helpful to know that Rainforest Alliance has their own certification to help consumers navigate which goods are actively helping rather than harming earth's forests and its dependent communities.
If you're anything like me, you've probably noticed the
Rainforest Alliance Certified
symbol on everyday groceries like coffee, chocolate, even Tetrapak (those coated paper containers used for almond milk and chai). I've always assumed this meant
, but I hadn't looked into it in any detail.
Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement. This ensures that the daily organizational work of Rainforest Alliance is complemented by farming techniques and processes that reinforce sustainable and ethical practices.
You can join up in a very accessible way!
Until September 23rd, Rainforest Alliance is doing a #followthefrog giveaway in which they'll share the myriad ways their programs are working to save the planet. Here are the rules...
Enter the contest by answering how you incorporate sustainability into your own daily lives, in relation to each day’s sustainability topic. Follow @RainforestAlliance and tag two friends with your answers. You only need to answer under one of the weeks’ posts to be entered. There will be one winner each week (two in total). Entry deadlines are September 16th and September 23rd.
Learn more on the
. If you don't use Instagram, you can participate by joining the
Forests matter to me because flourishing matters. A verdant earth full of people who have the security and health to see the big picture and change things for the better is what paradise looks like in my view. And initiatives like the ones provided by Rainforest Alliance, among many other good organizations filled with good people, are one way to get there.
Learn more from Rainforest Alliance:
This post was written by Polly Barks and
. Shared with permission.
A plant-based diet.
It’s a scary idea to many, but a necessary push for anyone concerned about their carbon footprint. Luckily, everyone’s plant-based diet will look different depending on your dietary needs, access, location, and a whole host of other personal choices.
This post explores our problem with meat, the impact of a switch to veganism or vegetarianism, and take a look at why anyone claiming just one way of eating is just plain wrong.
I have a personal ethical stance on the treatment and consumption of animal products. This is a more practical, data-driven look at the issue that only briefly talks ethics re: cultural differences. I understand ethics are central to most people’s beliefs around meat, but I ask you keep an open mind and make any and all dialogue respectful.
Our Problem with Meat
The modern Western world and its industries have an unhealthy relation with the animal products we consume. Here the focus is on meat, as I’ll talk more about the relative impact of vegetarianism (ie. some animal products) below. Here are just a few of the issues coming from our out-of-control consumption:
We’ve distanced ourselves from our consumption. Any time we do this, it’s a dangerous precedence for consuming without awareness. When we’re dealing with living beings, the results are horrific. We all know the horrible practices going on to get our meat and animal products. Still, it’s very easy to ignore when we’re not physically involved with the gross bits.
Our practices are environmentally dangerous. All aspects of large-scale commercial farming are highly unsustainable. “A lifecycle analysis conducted by EWG that took into account the production and distribution of 20 common agricultural products found that red meat such as beef and lamb is responsible for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains” (source). This comes from the range of factors needed to sell as much meat as we consume. Growing their food, destroying swaths of land for farms, pesticides, fertilizer, etc.
We’re consuming unhealthy amounts. Drawdown tells us the unfortunate truth behind this. On average, people from the USA and Canada consume almost twice as much protein daily than is recommended. “Eating too much… can lead to certain cancers, strokes, and heart disease.”
So we know meat and the way we process and consume it is a problem. What’s the answer – and is it really worth it to make a switch to a plant-based diet?
The Global Impact of Vegetarianism and Veganism
From an environmental perspective, making the swap toward a plant-based diet is one of the best ways you can reduce your carbon footprint!
found that veganism beat out vegetarianism in its emissions-reduction ability. But maybe not as much as you think. Based on a worldwide transition to a different diet between 2016 and 2050, the study suggested a 70% reduction of food-related GHG emissions, while a vegetarian diet followed closely behind with a 63% reduction.
For me, this is all great news. Sustainable veganism (more on that below) is clearly the answer, but while veganism is accessible and possible for many, for others it isn’t.
Knowing vegetarianism has a similar impact (ethics aside) is important when we consider the negative implications of global veganism.
, but it boils down to foreign demand making staple crops really expensive. Plus, the travel miles around food is a huge source of carbon emissions!
In the end, though, a plant-based diet is the obvious answer. A very rough estimate from
* (it’s hard to pinpoint such a broad, ever-changing set of data) says we could expect
66.11 gigatons of reduced CO2
. That’s “if 50 percent of the world’s population restricts their diet to a healthy 2,500 calories per day and reduce meat consumption overall… at least 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone. If avoided deforestation from land use change is included, an additional 39.3 gigatons of emissions could be avoided.”
Why Veganism Isn't the Only Answer...
As the conversation on appropriation goes mainstream - set in motion by events such as 2015's MET Gala, at which more than a few celebrities cringingly
and aesthetics - more people are aware that there are certain cultural symbols you simply don't adopt for yourself. From indigenous American headdresses to chopsticks in your hair to cornrows, it's fairly well understood that, unless you are a part of the cultures in which these fashions and symbols originated, you do not have a right to them.
But I don't want to get ahead of myself. While I'm sure a vast majority of StyleWise readers have listened in on or participated in a conversation on cultural appropriation, I still think it's important to discuss
we would place certain restrictions on the ways people engage with cultures that aren't their own.
The simple answer is colonialism, i.e. the fact that appropriation is most likely to occur when there is a power differential between the appropriated and the appropriator.
In the case of Western colonialist history, white people of European descent have already, over years of neglect and abuse, co-opted and destroyed important cultural artifacts and symbols that give culture its distinctiveness, and that reinforce social bonds.
This is, to put it bluntly, a form of terrorism. I once spoke with a Syrian friend about his home country and he told me that what people don't think about is the depth of grief that comes from losing your sense of place, from losing access to ancient buildings and art that cradle you in belonging. In
colonialist context, then, where white supremacy reigns, it is particularly important for white people and others with relative social and political power to approach cultural heritage with sensitivity and contextual understanding.
The fact is that, in far too many cases, traditional prints, designs, and handicrafts are all that remain of a person's cultural history. To use these items without context is to rub salt in the wound of colonialism.
I recently read a very good piece on cultural appropriation versus
on the MATTER Prints blog,
. Fran of Ethical Unicorn also covered this topic several months ago, and
In both articles, the writers highlight a few ways you can ensure that you're not partaking in cultural appropriation...
3 Ways Consumers & Brands Can Avoid Cultural Appropriation and Cultivate Appreciation
1 | Ensure that the creator of the product or experience comes from the culture they're promoting.
In the case of MATTER Prints, designs are not only inspired by artisan textile traditions, they're produced by the artisans themselves. This means that the people closest to the history, meaning, and creative process of the piece are overseeing production and financially benefiting from the sale of finished products.
The flip side of this would be big corporations like Urban Outfitters and H&M, who are routinely in the news for profiting off of textile prints and designs without a cultural link.
2 | Ask permission to use the product or partake in the experience.
Fran, a white woman from England, shares a
of the time she wore a gele, a traditional Nigerian head wrap, to a wedding. In her case, she was a member of the wedding party and was given express permission to partake in a culture that was not her own. This was a way for her to honor rather than exploit her friend's heritage.
3 | Educate yourself on the meaning of the print, design, or product you seek to incorporate into your lifestyle and respect it as an heirloom, not a throwaway good.
MATTER delves into this in their blog post, but the gist of it is that cultural artifacts like patterns, artisan processes, and clothing styles tell us something about people. Therefore, it's not just a matter of what we wear but of who made it and for what reason. Knowing this reminds us that people matter, and that ultimately fashion is meaningless without its ties to human experience, ingenuity, struggle, and storytelling.
When these 3 criteria are met in a single item, you'll be capable of truly appreciating the item rather than appropriating it as a mere fashion trend. But always err on the side of sensitivity, and if you don't know something, ask someone with answers.
As I've found myself in more social justice and activist circles over the years, this is something I've learned: it is better to make a fool of yourself by asking than to stay ignorant.
All Day Romper - c/o MATTER Prints; Hat & Shoes - thrifted
About the All Day Romper
First things first,
is a one-piece you can use the bathroom in without taking the whole thing off (hooray!). It was also designed by a customer, which makes a lot of sense given how versatile and easy to wear it is. With a flyaway back and an adjustable waistband, it's the epitome of easy summer dressing (I'm going to wear it on my upcoming road trip to Louisville because it's really comfortable).
The print is called Falcon Footprint because of its shape, and was produced through a traditional ikat (ee-kat) dye process, which requires tie-dying the threads before they're woven into fabric, unlike what we think of as tie-dye, which is done on finished fabric. The fabric was woven and the piece completed in India, where ikat has been produced for thousands of years.
One of the things I love about working in the sustainable fashion space is being able to celebrate true innovators like MATTER. I've been talking about them
of this blog, and being able to partner with them as they continue to develop projects and live out their mission is an honor.
Questions (or corrections) about cultural appropriation? I can't promise I have all the answers, but I can help you find someone who does. Feel free to leave a comment.