The term “gentrification” was first coined in the 1960s by Ruth Glass, a German-British sociologist and city planner, as he observed the changing working class neighborhoods around London. Although most often used to refer to physical displacement, gentrification takes many forms. For decades, fashion has been co-opting society’s lifestyles and making them more expensive. It’s a more subliminal, though much larger scale, version of The Queen’s Hamlet, Marie Antoinette’s play village in the gardens of Versailles– a place where she would dress up and play the part of a commoner for her own enjoyment. Sustainable fashion, although often operating with good intentions, is no exception to the fashion rule. Wealthy, white individuals have adopted tactics that many working class groups have used for years, repackaged them, and deemed them essential efforts to save the earth.
Disclaimer: Since I am the very definition of the kind of person gentrifying sustainable fashion – a wealthy, white woman – I’ve relied heavily on information from a few of the brightest minds in the sustainable movement right now. Capturing their vast knowledge on the subject in one piece proved to be an impossible task, so I implore you to seek out their respective work if you can! The more I learn, the more I am humbled, and if you are in the same position as me– I hope you will be too.
Historical Colonization Context
Like many trends absorbed into popular culture, the concepts behind sustainable fashion have been around long before westerners, white people, and the wealthy “discovered” them. Ever since the colonizers decided to invade indigenous people’s land, white people have been taking credit for the work of BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Craftsmanship, tailoring, and working with nature have been inherent in cultures dating back centuries. “Poverty and war create necessity. Let’s look to cultures in the Middle East, North Africa, Africa, and Asia that have practiced sustainability since long before it became a status symbol,” journalist, advocate, and entrepreneur Celine Seeman wrote in The Cut in 2018. In more recent history, people of color have become incredibly resourceful with secondhand clothing, swapping, and repurposing pre-loved clothing as well. These practices have been likewise co-opted, becoming fun hobbies for white and privileged folks. In turn, prices have risen in the majority of thrift stores– the stores which were meant to sustain those without the means to buy new clothing. “People in lower income brackets now go to Primark and H&M because it costs less to stock up on fast fashion than to buy vintage or second-hand,” Anne-So explained on Medium.
White colonists largely created the destruction of our earth and now have the audacity to tell black and brown people how to save it. In a piece for EcoAge, writer and activist Aja Barber perfectly summed up the hypocrisy of this, “Everything from the food we consume to the way we dress ourselves is entwined with a system of oppression off the backs of those with less and mostly people of colour.” Indeginous peoples practiced conservation long before privileged individuals decided to repackage and sell it as an elitist trend back to their younger generations.
“Sustainability is Blackness. Sustainability is Indigenous. But today sustainability has become a trendy buzz word to make people feel better about themselves — propaganda if you will,” – founder of MelaninASS and cofounder of Sustainable Brooklyn, Dominique Drakeford via i-D
One Size Does Not Fit All
The idea that you have to be a minimalist , purchase expensive new items, or style your wardrobe a certain way is a lie that gentrified sustainable fashion tells. Saving the earth can be done in more ways than one. Not only does attempting to make this movement uniform keep people out, but it also attempts to fix a systemic issue with one small solution. “The game here is about reduction of harm, not binary solutions,” Seeman further explained in her piece. The fact of the matter is that this movement is made up of a majority of white people, which makes absolutely no sense for a movement intimately involving the exploitation, traditions, and lessons of people of color. Not only is it ethically important to diversify the sustainable fashion movement, but it’s imperative to its success. Without a wide array of voices – especially those of color and of cultures which have first-hand knowledge of these original practices – we cannot change the toxic fashion system.
Sure, buy less and pay more if you have the means, continue to fight for fair wages around the world, and browse second hand sites, just remember where this movement came from. Equally as important? Using that time which your privilege allows you to make smart choices for the collective, not just for you. Ethical fashion activist Benita Robledo suggests rethinking that way we thrift by checking local shops first, searching resale sites, and avoiding charity shops’ bargain days. Another prominent voice in the fight for fair fashion, Emi Ito, urges sustainable fashion companies to slow down “long enough to take the time to have difficult conversations” around diversifying their workforce and hiring people of color in positions of power. “Folks with privilege definitely need to scrutinize public policy and understand how unsustainable and racist the system really is,” argues Drakeford. She suggests attempting to fight the system at its core instead of trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. “The solution is very much a systemic solution — but the first step is always a harsh reality check. Everyone has a lot of homework to do.”
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.