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Will 2020 Finally Force Fashion to Break Its Greenwashing Habits?


It’s easy to rattle off a list of buzzwords born from the sustainability movement: “ethical,” “organic,” “conscious,” “transparent,” even “sustainability” itself. Intersectionality has never been on that list, nor has it been mentioned much in mainstream media; the only silver lining is that it was never co-opted or rendered meaningless, either. But a brand can’t really be “sustainable”—even by its own definition—if it isn’t thinking about intersectionality, defined as “an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet” by Leah Thomas in her recent Vogue op-ed. “It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected,” she wrote. “It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality.”

It also runs counter to many of fashion’s long-held beliefs about sustainability: that as soon as a designer starts using organic cotton, it’s “sustainable”; that designers work with artisans in Africa and India to give them work and “preserve their crafts,” not because the quality is unparalleled (though white saviorism in fashion is a whole other story); and, more broadly, that social justice and protecting the environment are separate issues. You can’t fly the flag for protecting the ocean without considering climate change’s effects on Black, brown, and indigenous populations; you shouldn’t dedicate your life to veganism without an understanding of food security in low-income neighborhoods.

It shouldn’t have taken the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and Tony McDade and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests to wake so many of us up to those disparities, but the power behind this movement is pushing the industry to be more serious about change than it may have been otherwise. Black Lives Matter has also empowered consumers to join the conversation and use their voices like never before: When fashion brands high and low rushed to post black squares on #BlackoutTuesday in a lazy display of value-signaling, the ones that failed to actually take a stand—and donate to BLM causes, lay out actionable goals for improving diversity within their organization, “share the mic” with Black voices, or simply admit past faults and vow to do better—were promptly called out. Others were found to have problematic corporate cultures at odds with their do-gooding posts and were swiftly canceled and, in the case of Reformation, Refinery 29, and The Wing, their CEOs were removed. Overnight, it became far harder for brands to hide behind empty slogans, pretty photos, or vague campaigns, whether they were about social justice or the environment. Consumers want to see real action and tangible change, not marketing. Your supply chain is 100% organic? Show me. You say you pay a living wage to your factory workers. Can you prove it? You claim to be aware of how climate change affects the communities around you… but what are you doing to support them?

“What Black Lives Matter has done so powerfully is show that we need to have accountability, and it can’t be just words,” Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute, said on a recent call. “We need to have demonstrations of what is actually being done [by a brand] to address problems of race inequity and racial justice, and what is being done for the environment. The movement is highlighting the difference between real change and greenwashing, or green confusion. We’re shifting to a paradigm of accountability in the space, which will actually lead to a more sustainable industry.”



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