In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainable fashion, this year’s lockdown and Black Lives Matter movement have stirred our collective conscience and led to Black Pound Day, an initiative that highlights Black-owned businesses to support, running the first Saturday of every month. One would assume we have become more ‘woke’ as a result. But is this wave of conscious consumption really creating equality?
Despite the flurry of black squares posted on Instagram, it’s hard to ignore the distinct lack of commercially prominent, Black- and brown-owned sustainable fashion brands available to consumers, because we continue to remain largely invisible to a wider audience. This isn’t simply down to brands not disclosing their ownership, nor is it a case of inferior design; it’s a far more nuanced issue, boiling down to opportunity and, more crucially, the white gaze.
Until recently, the Black and brown population has largely operated as part of fashion’s shameful secret. We’re either the unacknowledged and exploited hired help, hailed as creative enigmas or exoticised in luxury brand aesthetics as the untouchable supermodel or the brown face of poverty. We’ve primarily served to be consumed without any real prospect of gaining power, the colonial hangover of the white gaze creating such a bias that our fight to be fairly represented is stalled and dismissed. But what exactly is the white gaze, this invisible, intangibly destructive phenomenon which stifles Black and brown progress in fashion?
It is the world as told by white people for white people, creating and presenting content, products and services from a white perspective and offering this as the only correct and desirable point of view. “The white gaze as a whole has informed everything for a movement that was created by and for white folks for their own privileged self-interest,” Dominique Drakeford, founder of MelaninASS, tells me. Flick through Instagram and you’ll find that brands often stick to a certain formula, narrative, palette, style and tone. Sustainable fashion is particularly homogenised in this respect, with its rigid use of altruistic messaging, neutral palettes, sans serif fonts and uniform of flat lays. Drakeford describes its visual identity and aesthetic as “a holistically synthetic mosaic”. This conformity, brushed off as consumer-driven trends, hinders Black and brown brands because the white gaze exclusively defines what becomes the default visual language, subverting every element of consumption and creating white aspirational standards for all that is deemed ‘successful’. Therefore the visual promotion of sustainable fashion is dictated and defined by, and tailored to, white people.
Is there really a problem though, you might ask, if this gaze aids the creation of aesthetically pleasing feeds and content? Well, yes. If Black and brown brands only stand a chance of success and recognition through whitewashing their feeds, there’s an issue. If we’re forced to learn to express ourselves in the only language the sustainable fashion world understands, there’s an issue. If we spend a lot of time assimilating our style to present an offering that is palatable to the majority defined by the white gaze, there’s an issue. Our relevance in the sustainable fashion world is directly linked to whiteness, and our recognition linked to conformation.
Beyond expected assimilation, sustainable fashion also has a white saviour complex. The most common expression of this is tokenism which, for Black- and brown-owned brands, is far more destructive than constructive. Take Black Pound Day. Set up by Swiss of So Solid Crew fame, it’s billed as a campaign to encourage consumers to disrupt their usual shopping habits in favour of Black-owned businesses on the first Saturday of every month. But is it enough? More to the point, does it let white consumers off the hook, ignoring a greater call to permanently include Black- and brown-owned brands in their shopping habits?
According to the Financial Times, around 40,000 of the UK’s 5.9 million businesses are owned by Black people, which is equivalent to 0.67% of the business base. Consumers need to be habitually encouraged to push past their familiar white go-tos; a regular call to action to peruse Black- and brown-owned brands on the most basic level will lead to greater exposure, because in part change is a game of numbers and frequency. It’s creating new, positive associations, separate from the media coverage that links the Black and brown population with catastrophic, life-ending events and which highlights and associates Blackness with ‘our plight’ as the victims or perpetrators of violent crimes, diminishing our narrative in order to serve and centre the white gaze.
Kalkidan Legesse, founder of Exeter-based sustainable store Sancho’s, tells me she has noticed an increase in sales and agrees that Black Pound Day has increased her reach and gives people a good reason to share her content. As a brand owner myself, I’d suggest that Black Pound Day is a good start but crucially it is just that: a start. It’s by no means enough but it is needed to remind consumers of the uncomfortable truth that without intentional change, the fashion economy at large will continue to prop up white business. Stateside, we see the 15% Pledge, founded by Aurora James, which calls on businesses to commit to sourcing 15% of their shelf space from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). It is another much-needed campaign with good intentions, this time focusing on corporate responsibility over the consumer. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be either/or, it would be both.
Beyond these initiatives, the real problem is that the white saviour complex is so deeply embedded in fashion that the industry is not motivated to create real change or equity. “Until recently, sustainable fashion lacked critical conversation about intersectionality and oppression,” stylist and activist Aja Barber tells me. In a shifting landscape that has started calling out these inequalities, we see embers of hope in the growing number of Black designers who have been credited with changing the narrative; when their success is based on their proximity to whiteness, however, this remains a far cry from structural reform. The power structures remain in place because significant change requires sacrifice – giving up power is the antithesis of the white saviour complex – so rather than structural change, we’re offered conditional help (when it suits these gatekeepers), which upholds the industry’s existing imbalance.
Its power-mad desire to control the narrative and continually centre itself as the hero means the industry’s white saviour complex constructs a landscape that leaves Black- and brown-owned brands as indentured creators: we only ‘pass go’ if we meet a prescribed criteria and are granted access. It maintains the upper hand by making consumers believe they’re doing us a solid by shopping with us, ensuring that spending money with us is seen as ‘support’, something to be congratulated – all the while, shopping with white brands remains the status quo. This mentality undermines our progress and mirrors the charity sector, where a monthly contribution to Oxfam serves to assuage white guilt rather than creating a conscious reckoning acknowledging how our spending habits detrimentally affect the developing world’s economy. Supporting Black-owned brands shouldn’t be a goodwill gesture, like a monthly charitable donation, but an action taken on a regular basis as part of diversified and rich consumer behaviour. Black Pound Day is a great start in altering our perspectives and opening up our rolodex of brands but it should be the first step in a wider shift in outlook, not a once-a-month pat on the back.
So beyond Black Pound Day, how can we change this? In a world where the problem is always ‘over there’, the first step you can take is to accept responsibility and acknowledge that your viewpoint is almost exclusively informed by the white gaze. Secondly, disrupt it by consuming media, content and products created by non-white, non-Western creatives, platforms and brands. Intentionally see the white gaze and your presumed correct view as not ‘right’ or ‘best’ but simply your perspective. It’s vital that white consumers have a greater, broader and more in-depth understanding of other cultures in order to better understand their own.
Finally, drop the subconscious superiority complex and when you are consuming non-white content, don’t judge it with a white stick: equity looks like habitually shopping with non-white brands and services (Black Owned Everything has a wealth of inspiration), and understanding that if a website doesn’t have your preferred (white) aesthetic, it doesn’t necessarily affect the offering. We’re at an exciting point in the sustainable narrative: every purchase you make can be part of making greater long-term change. We have the unique opportunity to shape the sustainable fashion landscape by detangling it from white saviourism, building intersectionality and creating equitable systems where the white gaze is no longer the right gaze.
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