We Cannot Achieve Fashion Sustainability Without Discussing Colonialism


In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, sustainability within the fashion industry has been thrust into the spotlight. Fast fashion brands like Zara and Gap are being held accountable for their role in exploiting women in third world countries, and larger fashion houses are discussing how they can reduce carbon emissions. Whilst these conversations are necessary, it is important we do not forget the role colonialism plays in the fashion industry.

The hashtag PayUphas been trending in the media, as many brands have shut down factories in countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, leaving the predominantly female workforce without money, food and medical care. A colonialism mentality is what permits brands to act in this way. South Asia was extracted for its raw materials and labour at the time of the British Raj, and is still suffering at the hands of Western powers today. The institutional oppression of Black and Brown bodies to provide semi-disposable items to the West is just as apparent with major manufacturers using the same trade routes as they did at the height of imperialism.

On the topic of fashion and colonialism, it is important to note how the British empire influenced, and was influenced by Eastern fashion. In 19th century Iran, gender was not defined in a hyper-categorised way like it was in the West. Iran wished to increase their economic gain, so to please the imperialists, a forced unveiling was imposed upon women and heterosexuality created in clothing to separate between genders. During the time of the Ottoman empire, Turkish fashion was centred in functionality whereas European fashion had distinct differences between men and women, so British women travelling to the empire wore traditional Turkish dress as a symbol of freedom and rights.

The concept of ‘eco-colonialism’ and moving away from Western-led sustainability has been discussed widely in relation to the fashion industry. Countries like Thailand and Vietnam are ranked as one of the most marine polluted, receiving international criticism; however it is mostly the waste from developed nations that pollute these Eastern countries. The idea of ‘waste’ is the product of socioeconomic structures, so Western consumers and creators cannot be exempt from taking responsibility in their role towards global warming.

Nike recently came under fire for using Uighur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps to produce sports hijabs, a product endorsed by many ‘influencers’. As Western buyers, it is important we understand where our clothes come from, and to consume fashion sustainably so it does not harm the most vulnerable of society. Only by actively working to eliminate the colonial mindset of fashion brands that creates power dynamics violating human rights can we achieve an equal, sustainable future for fashion.

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