Looks like you’re using a browser we don’t support.

To improve your visit to our site, take a minute and upgrade your browser.

How to Fix the Fashion Industry’s Racism

Promoting diversity in the executive suite does not mean social justice at the factory.

Omar Havana/Getty Images

When clothing retailer H&M was embroiled in a public relations crisis over its decision to cast a black toddler in a sweatshirt referencing a monkey in a jungle, one fashion news site offered this advice to the Swedish brand: “One of the simplest solutions for any company is to diversify, to simply hire more people of color.” Similar sentiments have been expressed in the aftermath of Dolce & Gabbana’s anti-Chinese videos and Instagram exchange, Prada’s anti-black figurines, Gucci’s blackface sweater, and Burberry’s hoodie and noose runway show—all of which occurred within a few months of each other. According to one fashion journalist, “Real change can only happen when diverse decision makers and executives are allowed to enter the highest levels of the industry.” The Washington Post reported that social media users saw “these blunders [as signaling] a need for brands such as Gucci and Prada to hire more people of color.” Another news site offers this quote from a professor of fashion business management: “sustainable change and accountability requires a strong commitment of hiring and promoting Blacks at every executive level within the fashion industry.”

I suggest that we need to rethink this reflexive call to hire more people of color in executive positions as a solution, or even as a first step toward a solution for fixing fashion’s racism. To begin, people of color in any corporate arena—from fashion to banking to academia—know that the presence of non-white executives and administrators provides no guarantee of racial affinity, much less a radical politics of labor and justice. As the popular saying goes, “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Bureaucratic diversity gives the lie to the myth of white innocence (e.g., white executives can’t prevent racism because they can’t see or detect racism) while making people of color solely responsible for fixing racism at their workplaces—an extra job responsibility that usually goes uncompensated and unvalued.

The idea that increasing the number of non-white people in top-level positions will produce anti-racist effects is what workplace researchers Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati call the “racial trickle-down effect.” A key point they make is that “diversity” functions not as a corrective against, but as a continuation of corporate strategies that sustain business as usual. We see this in the fashion context where diversity clauses are the norm in fashion firms including Burberry, Prada, and H&M, as well as in trade organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council. Yet despite the normalization of bureaucratic diversity, racism continues to permeate the fashion system. This contradiction is consistent with Carbado and Gulati’s findings. Under the pretext of diversity and progressivism, companies tend to hire and promote people of color into top positions who they perceive are unlikely to “rock the boat.” Worse, the focus on increasing people of color‘s access to high-level jobs misses the larger point that these elite jobs are conditioned on the exploitation of people of color in low-level fashion jobs. Plainly put, adding more people of color in high-value sectors like design, marketing, and advertising will do nothing to change the work conditions of people of color in low-value jobs in the cut/make/trim (CMT) sectors. The focus on executive diversity can provide a false sense of progress that allows fashion’s structural racism to become simultaneously more entrenched and more hidden.

Fashion racism isn’t just what we see in magazines, window displays, and runways. It is also in the trade policies and agreements that we can’t easily see. Fashion racism is built into and extends from the trade liberalization policies in the 1980s and 1990s that expanded western corporations’ labor and consumer markets. As many studies have shown, free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the WTO enabled western and largely white fashion brands to move their production from the U.S. and Europe to countries in Latin America and Asia where labor is much cheaper and labor laws are more difficult to enforce. As apparel manufacturing shifted to the Global South in the 1980s and 1990s, so too did the human and environmental costs of mass manufacturing. Today, global fashion continues to depend on the exploitation of non-white, poor, and mostly female workers and communities in the Global South. Increasing the numbers of non-white people in high-prestige design and media jobs at the top of the value chain does nothing to alter this global division of labor. Nor does corporate diversity decrease the vulnerability to industrial harm and unequal material benefits that these policies produce for those in the manufacturing jobs at the bottom.

To counter fashion racism, we will need to confront fashion classism and, relatedly, neoliberal definitions of success—such as access to elite institutions and positions—as the best path to social progress. This requires a transnational, trans-hemispheric, transracial, and trans-class analysis of corporate racism that accounts for and is accountable to those at the bottom of the corporate ladder—workers in the CMT sectors. Without a broader view of fashion’s racism, corporate diversity initiatives make people of color in the Global North accomplices to the exploitation of people of color in and from the Global South. The fundamental failure of bureaucratic diversity, then, is that it fails to link racism to the foundational structures of global fashion—the ones that shape the hiring practices and labor conditions of rank-and-file workers in the production sector.

The public discourse about fashion diversity and inclusion almost always excludes garment workers. So entrenched is this exclusion that when Teen Vogue published an article about worker strikes around the world, few readers noticed that it failed to mention the very workers that make the clothes advertised in its magazine. The omission was especially glaring given that the article appeared at the same time that 50,000 Bangladeshi garment workers had just ended two weeks of actions protesting their low wages.

More often, though, garment workers’ experiences, activism, and words are erased not by omission, but by distortion. Although garment workers are very clear about the systemic changes they need to improve their lives and working conditions, the mainstream discussion around social justice and fashion supplants workers’ demands for policy reforms with consumer-centered, individualistic solutions about shopping “better” (e.g., buying more expensive clothes). These prescriptions not only contradict garment workers’ realities (the same factory typically makes clothes for a wide range of brands, from budget to high-end labels), they implicitly blame non-elite consumers of “fast fashion” for the structural inequalities of global fashion capitalism. Further, they perpetuate the harmful myth that individual consumer choices—rather than deep structural changes to international trade, labor, and intellectual property policies—can fix global capitalism’s worst effects.

The fashion industry has a reputation for embracing an all-in/anything-goes attitude to diversity. All-black runway shows, all-Asian fashion editorials, prominent transgender models, and non-white superstars leading major fashion brands and magazines may not be the norm, but they do represent existing forms of fashion industry diversity. Yet these kinds of diversity can only be regarded as racial progress if we exclude garment workers and the structural conditions that make the work they do so necessary and so exploitable.

When fashion designers, journalists, and consumers’ demands for inclusivity stop at the garment factory gates, things like the sweatshop feminist t-shirt (in which t-shirts with messages like “Girl Power” and “This is what a feminist looks like” were discovered to have been made in Bangladesh and in Mauritius by women and girls earning less than $1 per hour) are not just predictable but inevitable. Almost all of the clothes we wear—whether they bear feminist messages or not—are made under exploitative trade policies and labor conditions. Unless diversity efforts address the structural racism that constitutes fashion’s entire system—from the point of production to the end consumer—the promotion of a few more people of color into prestige jobs only serves as a mechanism for maintaining the labor and environmental injustices that are borne by tens of millions of other people of color—mostly women and girls—in the manufacturing sectors.