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.