Can we decolonise sustainable fashion?

When we talk about decolonisation, it’s mainly to do with breaking away from what we consider “normal” and how we deviate from that – mainly westernised – norm. Clothing from the US and Europe is standardised the world over and everything else is considered “ethnic” or “traditional” wear. When it comes to sustainable fashion or “slow” fashion, there is a lot available for what is seen as “normal” clothing, which is highly westernised. Despite ongoing efforts to decolonise knowledge and subjectivities, including narratives that have for centuries been on the fringe of “normal” has been hard. Sustainability in fashion has been a difficult area to pin down too in terms of decoloniality. But we do know that even pioneers in sustainable development have let down people of colour again and again.

Issues of decoloniality require us to take apart complex, colonial institutions and the mechanisms within these that have constructed and perpetuated ways of thinking about what is normal and what is “other”. In the case of fashion, the ‘other’ is not normal, therefore exotic and somewhat fetishised, and became co-opted by the west as a binary to the norm. Understanding this is critical to understanding injustices and inequalities that take place in the fashion industry. To be “other” is to be all those things that come with it. Most reductively, it is abnormal, and this has its connotations that, say, one who is Indian or of Indian descent cannot wear a sari in western society without having to provide a reason for it such as a religious holiday or event. 

This means going further than black representation in advertising campaigns, POC-owned businesses, and black names on a brand. It’s about rethinking what we consider worthy of slow and deliberate production, what borrowing from cultures entails, and who benefits from that borrowing. 

If it’s such an uphill battle to decolonise ideas of fashion in general, to decolonise sustainable fashion is even harder, especially when the majority of fast fashion brands selling expensive and “exotic” prints to their European and US customers offer cheap western-wear only cast-offs to the people making the clothes in third-world sweatshops. Fashion as an institution has progressively and consistently excluded fashion systems that lie outside the western norm, opting to refer to non-western fashion systems as “alternative” or even “anti-fashion”, while adopting these alternative styles as trends as if the cultures behind them can be discarded.

The crimes of fashion go way beyond overflowing landfills, chemicals, and sweatshops. Fashion has always represented culture and the cultural expressions that don’t fit the western aesthetic are ignored, oppressed, and disrespected. This suppression of diverse cultural expression has contributed to collapsed or lost skills and histories. Communities seduced by global brands have taken money out of their own economies and it’s going into the bank accounts of some of the wealthiest people in the world. Sustainable fashion – no matter how much eco-friendlier and human rights-centric it can be – is built on the same models of cultural hegemony over traditional and historical prints and origins. 

Before sustainable or slow fashion takes root, we need to explore questions of cultural sustainability so as to stop it from replicating fast fashion’s cultural domination of styles and modes of appropriation. Reclaiming fashion from the margins is the only way to de-westernise the narrative that fashion continues to push and perpetuate in what ‘normal’ is and who benefits from it. The discourse and production need to shift to a shared ideology of identity, creativity, memory, belief, and gender. We need to rethink fashion in terms of ethical practices and environmental sustainability but also in terms of recovering, repairing, and reclaiming cultural diversities before the entire move to local fashion is whitewashed.