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Black talent is necessary for fashion’s sustainable future

Fashion is one of the fastest growing areas for the green economy, but racial diversity continues to be a challenge for sustainability talent.

This includes supporting designers across the global African diaspora.

This includes supporting designers across the global African diaspora. Image via Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Sustainability positions are on the rise across industries, and fashion is one of the fastest growing areas for green jobs in the United States. Yet Black talent is still underrepresented throughout the green economy, even though companies continue to tout diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

As we focus on people and planet, we must strive for greater racial equity and respect for Black talent in sustainability, especially in the fashion industry.

After all, Black Americans have shaped fashion’s global supply chain since the beginning of U.S. history. Enslaved Africans cultivated cotton that made the nation a global superpower in the 1800s. Ann Lowe, segregated during design school in 1917 because of her race, designed dresses for the elite in entertainment, luxury retail and government. In 1973, Black and Brown youth invented hip-hop — often appropriated and now celebrated during its 50th anniversary year. Black hip-hop designers repurposed clothing in their creations years ago, a practice now embraced in mainstream fashion as the industry looks to address its environmental challenges.

Today’s consumers are increasingly diverse, and they are demanding more from brands than ever before, particularly in racial equity and sustainability. The fashion industry cannot exclude brilliant minds because of their race and still be creative, sustainable and robust.

Black Americans want to buy from companies that believe in their values of equity. We have significant purchasing power. Black spending power reached a record $1.6 trillion in 2021, and in the American luxury market Black consumers are driving significant growth.

J. Crew’s partnership with Black farmers is the exception, not the norm.

We also have increased political power in the nation’s Capitol. Sixty Black lawmakers took office in the 118th Congress, the largest number ever, including House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the first Black member to lead a party in either chamber. This progress comes at a critical time as brands and retailers spend more to shape fashion law and environmental policy.

Despite these advancements, Black talent remains underrepresented in sustainability and fashion. More than 80 percent of individuals working in sustainability are white, as noted in the GreenBiz Group’s 2022 State of the Profession report. And as we look at fashion, Blacks are not only underrepresented in design — making up 4.9 percent versus 12.6 percent of the industry’s labor force — but they likely experience pay gaps as well, according to AIGA’s 2021 Design POV Research.

Corneil Montgomery, CEO of Los Angeles-based Sovereignty Company, recognized the challenges and barriers for Black fashion talent interested in sustainability. That led him to launch an accelerator program for entrepreneurs of color who want to "build sustainability into their brands" and focus on circularity. Sovereignty’s first cohort includes the mother-and-daughter design duo behind House of Aama and designer Charles Harbison — who has dressed Beyonce, Ava Duvernay, Jessica Alba and other iconic celebrities.

Industry leaders have made commitments to address sustainability and human rights across the global supply chain. But civil rights — including racial equity — are also human rights.

Here's how fashion companies can weave racial equity into their sustainability strategies.

Increase collaboration

DEI shouldn’t be limited to a company’s human resource or philanthropy areas. Efforts should be integrated into programs addressing fashion’s environmental footprint. For example, J. Crew has applied an "equity lens to sustainability," keeping in mind that it sources 70 percent of its products from cotton. The company’s sustainability and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) teams are working together and partnering with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, an association of Black farmers — as they transition to regenerative farming for cotton.

Yet J. Crew’s partnership with Black farmers is the exception, not the norm. As I discussed in 2019, brands must provide their DEI teams with a budget and resources to make meaningful change — and that starts with access to sustainability programs and other departments.

Nurture the next generation of talent

Education is the first step in building an equitable and inclusive fashion talent pipeline providing students without generational wealth or networks with access to industry internships and full-time positions. Future fashion talent is essential to building an inclusive and equitable sustainable supply chain, not to mention bringing their vitality and vision to the industry.

Sustainability demands that we also sustain the people powering the industry, and not just here in America.

As fashion moves forward on sustainability initiatives, we must ensure that diverse students and faculty are included throughout fashion’s education system — especially in design, law, technology and communications.

Include diverse voices in fashion policy

Climate change impacts communities of Black, Brown and Indigenous people most severely, and so it is only right that diverse fashion talent be included in the solutions. U.S. lawmakers are preparing for the 2023 Farm Bill. Farmers, fashion businesses and nonprofits are pushing for the legislation to address education, equity and access in regenerative agriculture.

Sustainability demands that we also sustain the people powering the industry, and not just here in America. This should include designers and entrepreneurs throughout the African diaspora. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is one step in the right direction. The trade program with the U.S. and certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa allows for duty-free treatment of U.S. imports of textile and apparel products. But AGOA is set to expire in 2025. As brands make multi-year sourcing decisions, now is the time to push for this program’s long-term renewal.

Racial equity is critical for creativity and economic growth, and Black talent belongs at the heart of fashion’s environmental strategy.

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