YES, Fast Fashion is Racist! And we need to stop pretending it’s not. The majority of fast fashion is produced in developing countries. This is because these countries don’t have labour laws, or don’t enforce labour laws, to a degree that we expect and demand in our own countries, making it quicker and cheaper to mass-produce clothing. This doesn’t dissuade the majority of fashion consumers from purchasing fast fashion items; in fact, the lure of low prices courtesy of the lack of labour laws, encourages unethical consumption.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone try to justify the fast fashion industry with “well, at least they have jobs” and “everyone is poor there, it’s just how their economy works” – well, I’d be writing this article from my beach house in Gracetown, not at my kitchen table in suburban Perth.
The fact that fashion consumers actively participate in the fast fashion economy by purchasing clothing deliberately manufactured in countries with labour regulation standards that we wouldn’t abide in our own countries is only due to one thing: racism.
As with all forms of discrimination, racism demands that we other ourselves from people who we assume are different from us in some (or many) ways – different enough at least to imbue them with wants, needs and desires that are inherently different from ours. This allows us to believe that those other people are content to be afforded lesser basic rights than we demand as minimally acceptable for ourselves.
Fast fashion hinges on consumers, a) turning a blind eye to the inherent contradiction of demanding rights for ourselves that we don’t demand for those that make our clothes and, b) justifying the unethical treatment of the human beings who produce those clothes by implying a level of willingness to their own exploitation due to their inherent difference from you and me (i.e.: racism).
It boggles my mind that recent current affairs had people up in arms about the electing to supreme power of a man who has demonstrated an unarguably racist and misogynist frame of reference for the world around him. Yet, the majority of these same people are happy, elated even, to pick up a bargain at the local chain store – a bargain that is the result of the exploitation of a non-white, majority female workforce who will remain in poverty as a result of this ‘discount’ economy.
Many people would take offence to being told that their ongoing support for the fast fashion industry is founded on an inherent racism. Many will point out that non-white populations also consume fast fashion, ergo, not racist. Many will argue that ethical fashion is not accessible to all and that the fast fashion industry provides affordable clothing for struggling families, for people living in poverty in Western countries. I’ll address these arguments more fully in next month’s article where I’ll explore the idea that fast fashion has ‘democratised’ fashion. However, what I will say here is that arguing in favour of a system that aids one group of people living in poverty, at the expense of another group of people living in poverty, is just as problematic. It still involves prioritising one kind of person over another.
I’m not saying that racism is the sole driver behind fast fashion; rather, it provides the free pass we need to accept the exploitation of some people that we would never accept for ourselves.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “ethical is the new black”. I disagree wholeheartedly with this statement. Ethical fashion is not the new black; it’s Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it applies equally to us all.
Originally published on November 24, 2016