The ethical fashion industry focuses on producing clothing while simultaneously taking care of the planet and the people on it, but it is leaving low-income women of color in the U.S. behind. As a Latinx ethical fashion writer and activist, I’m baffled by its contradictions.
Ethical fashion brings together so many of my passions. Fashion (duh), environmentalism, female empowerment, and social justice. Buying a single ethically-made piece has huge repercussions all along the supply chain. Let’s say you buy an organic fair-trade T-shirt. Well, because it’s organic, fewer pesticides leak into the soil and waterways when it is produced. Sweet! Because it’s fair-trade, the workers producing the shirt, who are most often women of color, make a living wage. Dope! Women reinvest 90% percent of their wages back into their household, which means an entire community rises. Yaaas.
All because you chose to buy one simple shirt.
When I put it that way, it sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And if you have the economic privilege to buy a $50 T-shirt at the drop of a hat, it is. But the truth is that by assuming everyone has the economic power to buy ethically, bloggers (including myself) are turning a blind eye to a huge chunk of the U.S. population. The ethical fashion industry concerns itself with women who are escaping sex trafficking in India, yet ignores the plight of the woman working three jobs down the street who can’t afford the price of organic fair-trade clothing.
In order to move the needle of a multi-trillion dollar industry, we must include everyone — not just rich, usually white women.
I love the people I’ve met in the ethical fashion world. They care deeply about righting wrongs and helping those in need. Their hearts are huge.
But when I look around these spaces, time and time again, I have the only brown face in the room.
I began to ask myself, where are my sisters of color? When I’m shopping for ethical fashion, why is it so hard to find clothes designed by them? When I purchase something created by women of color, why are the owners of the company almost always white?
The short answer is money.
On average, white women make $0.77 cents on the dollar to a white man. Without a doubt that sucks. But compare it to the $0.64 cents African-American women make or the $0.56 cents Hispanic women earn — and suddenly that $0.77 cents starts to look like a lot of money. Compound that earning potential over a lifetime, and you end up with a buying class composed mostly of white women. When you’re upper class, or even upper middle class, it’s easy to buy ethically. It’s a matter of preference; a choice that doesn’t have deep consequences. You were going to spend $150 dollars on some jeans anyway, so might as well make them organic fair-trade.
For my middle-class sisters, the choice is a bit more fraught but still doable. They’ve got their bills covered and have a small amount of disposable income. They can’t buy those $150 dollar jeans on a whim, but with a little planning, they’ll be able to save up and buy the jeans that align with their ethics. A small effort makes a big difference.
What about the women who bust their butts to scrimp and save every way they can, but still can’t justify spending a week’s paycheck on jeans?
According to the Kairos Center, 33% percent of the U.S. population is considered low-income, with another 12.7% living in poverty — that’s over 142 million people in the United States alone. These are the women who work two or even three part-time jobs because their bosses have figured out that if they keep their employees working just under full-time, they can avoid giving them benefits. What can an ethical fashion blogger like me say to a woman who has to choose between paying her electric bill or feeding her kids?
Those of us with the privilege to buy ethical fashion forget these women. We act as if choosing ethical fashion is simply a matter of will. Up on our high horses, we scorn those who buy a three dollar shirt. “It’s trash!” We say. “Don’t they care about the women in Bangladesh who worked in a sweatshop earning 0.24 cents an hour to make it?” Yes, of course they do — but people living in poverty also have to focus on putting one foot in front of the other because our economy has such a stranglehold on them. If you had to choose between survival for you and your family or providing a job for a stranger on the other side of the planet, which would you choose?
U.S. women living in poverty who can’t afford to buy ethically and Bangladeshi sweatshop workers producing clothes in deadly, abusive environments actually coexist in a feedback loop. Both are unable to pry themselves free of economic hardships unless those of us with privilege use that privilege to speak for change. The sweatshops are kept in business because the Western world continues to buy cheap clothes. Low-income women in this country keep buying cheap clothes because we don’t pay them enough to buy anything better.
If we want to improve the life of one group of women, we must improve the life of all women. How do we do it? We could talk about school integration, raising the minimum wage, single-payer health care, but let’s take a look at the intersection all those things: Fashion.
Yup, you read that right. Fashion is powerful. Valued at 3 trillion dollars, the fashion industry demands to be taken seriously. In our capitalist world, money like that doesn’t just talk — it screams at the top of its lungs. We must harness this power to create a world where no woman — regardless of color, income, or education — is left behind.
For those of us who can afford ethical fashion, we must take our criteria one step further.
It’s not enough that our clothes are organic or ethically-made. We must seek brands and businesses owned by people of color.
When we buy from people of color, our money gets filtered through their communities. It raises property values and provides money and resources for schools. Making this one small behavior change snowballs over time, giving communities of color the economic boost they need to thrive. Just as our dollars help women in rural India, it will also help the woman a few blocks down the way.
You might not know any brands owned by people of color off the top of your head, and that’s okay. The women of color with ethical fashion blogs got you covered. From fashion-forward pieces by SiiZu to the drool-worthy glitter pumps by Brother Vellies, we love to promote our sisters of color. Check out the blog Joojoo Azad, run by Hoda Katebi a self-proclaimed sarcastic and angry Muslim-Iranian writer, Ruby Veridiano’s blog, which focuses on connecting the dots between women’s empowerment and socially-conscious fashion, or my own blog Compassion Fashion, where I explore how ethical fashion can give your life deeper meaning. You’re not only going to learn about POC-owned brands, but you’ll get a fresh take on the latest trends.
Positive changes in the fashion industry will not occur overnight, but as we continue to bolster women of color on the other side of the world and at home, our choices as consumers will force larger companies to change along with us. Until that day comes, I ask other ethical fashion activists to withhold judgment when we see a woman carrying a Forever 21 shopping bag because that’s all she can afford. It is by sheer luck alone that we don’t find ourselves standing in line behind her.