While bigger fashion brands and the industry as a whole have been under increasing pressure in the last decade to provide more visibility into their supply and sustainability processes, there are still many facets of the industry that remain somewhat opaque, and in definite need of further scrutiny.
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware and therefore critical of, the fashion industry's ethical and moral obligations, as they relate to labour and working conditions, exploitation, the impacts on the environment, and the consequences of fast fashion. Brands have had to provide more visibility to satisfy this need, with some even changing processes and their strategies, given the need for more transparency. Consumers' evolution of consciousness has unequivocally had a transformative impact, however, fashion’s commitment to diversity and inclusion remains considerably lacking.
A truly fair and sustainable industry would be one representative of all people; of varied backgrounds, ethnicities, and particularly one which is respectful of, hires and gives credit to the very cultures and minority groups from which it often takes inspiration.
The momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased attention around the necessity for more legislation, equality, and recognition for those who in the past have been overlooked or discriminated against. The fashion industry is guilty of this just as much as any other and has still a long way to go to tip the scales of equality.
The fashion industry, and many major luxury brands, have long been complicit in a culture of cultural appropriation, racial insensitivity, discrimination, underrepresentation, and promoting racist ideologies in plain sight. They have long defined the standards of beauty; typically, through the almost exclusive use of extremely thin models with fair skin, thin smooth hair, and light eyes. Women of colour are scarcely represented in campaigns or on runways, and then forced to work in an industry that mistreats or silences them. One such type of normalised discrimination is by hiring makeup artists and hairstylists who are untrained to work with darker complexions and natural hair at the global fashion weeks.
Models have spoken out about this marginalisation, but little has been done. Some are even asked to arrive to shoots camera-ready or pay for their own hairstylist given that the team hired will not or can not work with their hair. Simply casting black or minority models is not enough; creative backstage teams should also be skilled enough to work with all races. This disparity should also, therefore, be addressed both in cosmetology schools and by makeup brands, to set the expectation that to work in fashion, you must know how to work with all models. These prolific discriminatory practices and industry-wide means of exclusion need to end.
There have also been numerous instances of whitewashing occurring within fashion media, a practice that has finally been receiving criticism, despite it happening for years. The practice of artificially lightening someone’s skin tone of their hair to appear fairer underpins this cultural creation that lighter is more beautiful. Several major fashion magazines, advertisers, and cosmetic companies have faced controversies in recent years due to the apparent lightening of complexions in their media, and while these claims are disputed, the images themselves feed into a very damaging culture and perpetuate negative sentiments for women of colour and how they should fit into a ‘white’ industry.
As a consequence, many large fashion houses and magazine publishing firms have pledged to do better, to openly promote diversity and inclusion, feature a greater variety of individuals on their runways, pages and in their advertising, and revise their hiring strategies to ensure their own creative teams and talent reflect this, all the way to the top. But who exactly can hold them accountable for this? And will this bring lasting change?
Statistics have shown that the more culturally diverse their executive teams are, the more profitable they are. McKinsey and Company’s 2018 research has attributed this to better access to talent, improved decision making, deeper employee engagement, and greater insight into their consumers.
While there are financial incentives to make changes, one might also ask why their moral obligations and commitment to creating opportunities for those who have been historically disenfranchised might not be enough. The greatest incentive perhaps, which has brought about these changes in the last year, has in fact been consumer pressure.
The industry has always largely been controlled by white men in executive and board member positions, meaning unless those at the top embrace the changes, and become allies committed to reversing years of systemic racism, a future of fair representation and diversity in their positions of power, might still be a long way off. Open communication and discussions about both overt and unconscious bias will inevitably need to be addressed if brands want to evolve and meet their consumer's demands.
They also will have a lot of work to do within their supply chains and distribution chains. It is no secret that the communities most negatively impacted by the poor labour practices and terrible environmental effects of the fashion industry are disproportionately people of colour. Likewise, large retailers, need to support and promote black-owned businesses and carry more labels from minorities to more fairly reflect our populations. With less than 1% of the stock in the market today being from black-owned businesses, no more evidence is needed to reflect the discrimination in the industry.
Companies will need to monitor their own progress, and then be judged against others in the industry. Data, transparency, and accountability are prerequisites for measuring significant change, and aggressive goals need to be set. Consumers will ultimately then need to decide if brands are taking sufficient action and it is in the power of consumers to ensure the momentum for change is sustained; brands and consumers alike will need to commit to this for years to come. There is no easy road to progress, but the events of 2020 showed us that we don’t have any more time to wait.