Black Lives Matter: What urgently needs to change in the fashion industry
Safia Minney and Kalkidan Legesse, MD of ethical retailer Sancho’s, talk about their experiences of systemic racism. They share their experience and examine how racism stands in the way of sustainability as well as inclusion through diversity and resilience.
Kalkidan is a social entrepreneur and ethical fashion activists whose work can be found at www.sanchosshop.com.
Safia: Many fashion brands jumped to support Black Lives Matter on social media, but were swiftly criticized for their hypocrisy in not taking action to eradicate systemic racism within their own organisations and supply chains.
This is not a new issue. For the past few decades there have been questions about the lack of representation of black and ethnic minorities in the fashion industry from designers to models. It also extends to cultural misappropriation and the wholesale discrimination of BAME workers in head offices and stores.
The current Black Lives Matter movement is forcing leaders to create mandates and rethink bias. Brands are beginning to realise that a lack of diversity in senior leadership teams will also hold them back from creating resilient, new business models in the urgency to transition to a fair and just economy.
Corporate leaders are finally being called to account by their customers, former and current employees – and their investors are waking up too.
Being from Indian and European parentage and growing up in the UK I find myself both acutely aware of systemic racism and also worn down by it. Which in turn makes me feel complicit, despite three decades championing Fair Trade and recruiting and leading one of the first truly diverse teams in publishing in the early 80s. My experience of systematic racism does not necessarily give me a platform to speak on all racism.
Kalkidan, I’d like to ask you about your heritage and how that changes the conversation on systemic racism for you?
Kalkidan: Sure. But before I move to discuss my own heritage, first I would like to address your feeling of compliance with systematic racism. I think one of the issue is the way people of colour are continually made to buy into the current racial system in order to survive. As far as there is oppression in our society we all play a part in upholding it.
That feeling of compliance can make individuals feel unable to fully express their experience of racism. Because in navigating that system they have been rewarded to various extents. But it is important for us to realise that for many people there is no choice. Especially people of colour. And however compliant we have been it is our duty to dismantle racism in everything we do going forward.
At least for me, that is one of the things that is changing. The growing acceptance that I’m prepared to call out a system that with hand rewards me and with the other attacks me.
I’m realizing that, I really don’t mind losing any grounding false realities. I don’t mind being kicked out of, or being uninvited to spaces.
If I feel that I or my peers are being discriminated because of somebody else’s ignorance, I am no longer willing to make space for that ignorance. To carry its burden.
In many ways that is my privilege, as my own employer my wage isn’t tied to my in action.
Safia: Well said. That definitely resonates.
Kalkidan: In terms of my heritage. I am a black Ethiopian woman basically. I’m British on paper now, but if I’m on the street I don’t think that’s how people would see me. My family moved to the UK when I was five.
Growing up I never saw myself represented in any position of power or strength. And I definitely didn’t think I would move into fashion or start my own business – that was just how my cards were dealt.
I got into fashion doing a development internship in Ethiopia for World Vision and I spent a lot of time with the cotton spinners, the weavers and the seamstresses making beautiful clothing.
I realized that the predominant narrative was that the only way to help Africans was with aid, but this narrative is written by white men and women. Actually, there is power and value and beauty in the craftsmanship and storytelling of my people.
I saw the hypocrisy of the dynamic between international trade and international aid. I felt shame that my people are put in the position of needing aid, when really the things they produce are just completely undervalued in the free market. From then on, I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, it was helping people, helping them to earn more money, trying to live fairly myself and hoping to do so happily – that’s how I got into ethical fashion.
Safia: We share a passion for textile, craft, artisanal livelihoods and for Fair Trade.
I agree. There is great dignity in people being able to earn a livelihood and the community development and grassroots political voice that is created as a result of this. I also feel very strongly that creating self-determined, and thriving local enterprises is key to mitigating the impact of climate change.
Not many people know that the origin of Fair Trade began in the 60s when it was called ‘Alternative Trade’. Its slogan was: ‘Trade, not Aid’ and it was about supporting rural small-scale producers in the majority world.
Back then people had no idea the shocking power imbalance between the global north buyer and the global south seller; nor that unfettered capitalism would become so exploitative of people and nature.
My great, great grandfather and his family were hand weavers in India. They were part of the generation that experienced Indian fabric production being undermined by the British in order to secure markets for mass-produced fabric from Lancashire mills.
There are some shocking stories about some of the tactics and actions taken by the East India Company such as mutilating the hands and cutting off the thumbs of weavers so they could no longer work.
Impoverished people had to leave their villages to search for a livelihood.
We are only now really beginning to understand how that colonial system grew into the highly exploitative neo-liberal system we have today. And recognize the urgent need to find new economic measures and methods that put inclusion and sustainability central. Fair Trade can play a big part in a just transition to net zero.
I believe craft is the future of fashion. Hand weaving is resilient and robust enough to put food on the table for millions of people. And it is carbon neutral. People Tree, the brand I founded in 1991, has shown that it’s possible on a small scale and I would love to see it done at scale. The challenge is for fashion companies to take a longer-term and partnering approach to design and buying.
The COVID crisis, has disproportionately impacted workers in garment factories. They are losing their jobs and most were already living a hand-to-mouth existence. It isn’t acceptable for brands who have benefitted from cheap labour to excuse their responsibility by saying they don’t own the factories. Unfairly the most vulnerable people are suffering – migrant workers, women and the rural poor. Supply chains reflect the inherent systemic racism benefitting the mostly white fashion business owners and investors. If the climate and ecological emergency wasn’t enough, the public is demanding transparency and accountability as fashion leaders and investors respond to allegations of systemic racism, learn a new way of thinking and how to be White Allies and how to audit and take action.
Kalkidan, do you think the discussion around systemic racism will go as far as including the people producing the products that we consume, trapped in exploitation and modern slavery?
Kalkidan: There is every chance that it will not unless in this movement we accepting nothing less that systematic equality. One of the phrases that I think really personifies the current movement is ‘silence is violence’. If you aren’t using your power and privilege to dismantle systematic racisms you are complicit in it.
In many ways the majority of people are at the very first step of their education on this topic. I still see people on social media discussing whether race and fashion is related – this is an evident truth for anyone who has cared to look. The fast fashion industry behaves like neo-liberalism and colonialism before it – it is the the mass extraction of national wealth.
In so many countries around the world, particularly in the East and the South, so many black and brown people toil in order to fulfill company share holder requirements in the west. The power imbalance is blatant. And it is unfair.
It’s still the mass extraction of resources; it’s the massive difference between how much someone producing raw material gets paid in comparison to the person who apparently does all the ‘value-adding’ at the end of the cycle.
What fast fashion has done is used the same system to produce products at the lowest possible price. It does so by creating an environment where people are paid nothing and where materials are very cheap so all of the cost burden falls on the community where the garment was made.
Although those statements are evident, one thing that is becoming clearer is the fact that this process has simply been to create a number of billionaire families in the West.
I personally am not hopeful that this companies will be able to monitor themselves to be effective distributors of the wealth they have hoarded.
We’ve seen their values in how they have decided to treat their suppliers during the pandemic.
These companies could have protected the workers who made their clothes in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia. Instead they cancelled orders that had already been made. It’s hard for me to believe these companies are not aware of the impact it has had.
I would like to wait and see what happens in terms of how people tackle systematic racism within the industry in the long term, because it is rife with it.. What’s happening now is people are coming out and expressing how they were treated. For example, staff at Anthropologie in Canada, LA and London had a nickname for black people in its stores, it was ‘Nick’, as in ‘They’re about to nick something’. This is a culture of racism from factory floor to store front. It’s absurd, it’s so disappointing. Now people are becoming aware, let’s see what people do with this information.
Safia : I have taken a lot of pleasure in seeing the statues of leaders who perpetrated slavery brought down.
Kalkidan: Absolutely. Seeing the Colston statue toppled over like that has definitely been one of my highlights.
What I think is most important to recognize that people had been asking their council for decades to remove it. Then that week, in that moment they realised they could just remove it themselves. There is so much power in that. And we all need to recognize the potential our actions can have if we choose to not be complicit in systematic racism. Oppression is the result of a small number of key people holding power and people believing that is where authority lies. But the truth is authority lies in agreement. And it belongs to us all.
Safia: Citizens will need to be active agents of change for social and environmental justice. We can’t rely on those in power and governments to deliver change at the speed it is needed. We need to work together and take action to eradicate systemic racism and build a new economy that is just and sustainable.
Thank you so much, Kalkidan.