Sustainability and Colonialism from the Fashion Industry's Perspective
Colonialism and sustainability
Industries must recognize sustainability through not only an environmental lens but an anti-colonial one.
We are in the midst of experiencing the worst environmental crisis in human history, including the biological extinction of wildlife. The magnitude of the climate crisis has increased drastically over recent years due to anthropogenic and human-oriented factors, including fossil fuel burning. Other industries include gem and mineral mining, leading to the destruction of the world’s ecological sustainability, leading to deforestation, and the destruction of natural habits. This notion of exploitation of natural resources stems from the origins of early colonialism. To truly create any meaningful reform, industries must acknowledge and recognize sustainability through not only an environmental lens but an anti-colonial one.
This idea of seeking new territories and viewing them as a place with abundant resources to exploit, with little to no consideration for these actions’ long-term consequences, is the very premise of colonialism. The aim is not to condemn industries but to understand how colonialism’s global process helped create the world and environment we inhabit currently. Many, if not all, industries are guilty of exploitation to some extent. One sector that we all participate in, to some degree and is rooted in exploitation, is the Fashion Industry.
The Fashion Industry & Colonialism.
Understanding sustainability within the context of the Fashion Industry must involve acknowledging and talking about colonialism. The very essence of colonial practices involves utilising extraction of resources from both the natural environment and labor to exponential financial gain. The fashion industry has been built and operates in a manner that aligns with colonial practices.
Egyptian economist Samir Amir states that “the plunder of the resources of peripheries, the oppression of colonized peoples, their direct or indirect exploitation by capital, remain the common characteristics of the phenomenon of colonialism,” this ultimately is the premise that the fashion industry has been assembled upon. It is an industry rooted in unequal exchange—operating in a manner where brands are racing to produce as quickly as possible, as much as possible, as cheap as possible. In most cases, this means looking to countries still reeling from colonization impacts, making them a target of exploitation.
An example of such exploitation involves several American and European brands who opted out and refused to #PayUp for orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. When China became too expensive as wages increased, brands fled to places like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Ethiopia; this didn’t occur because of infrastructure or better factories. It is merely because these countries are the cheapest frontiers left to exploit BIPOC communities.
To understand colonialism from the fashion industry’s perspective, one must simply look to where resources to make clothes are acquired. For resources such as wool, cotton, and silk, they are directly connected to historical colonial routes proving that colonialism is very much alive in our current economic reality. Countries rich in resources that the West needs are the ones living in severe poverty and discomfort. Powerful countries are the ones who control the narrative around political/socio realities that also happens to have an exploitative history and present, which establishes their political and economic power. The accessibility of information around what sustainability means and how it is to be integrated and adopted is dictated by the current dominant cultures and those in power - this must be challenged! Those directly impacted by these crises should be the ones communicating and receiving the information. Colonialism and environmental racism are not simply trending topics; they are the reality that developing countries continue to face and ideas that continue to be dismissed.