The relationship between colonialism and sustainable fashion is complex and has shaped the fashion industry as we know it today. Like many other industries, the fashion industry has a long history of colonialism, particularly in the way it has sourced materials and labor from colonized countries.
At its core, colonialism refers to the political, economic, and cultural domination of one group of people over another, often resulting in the exploitation of resources and labor. The Fashion Industry and colonization are related through a complex history of trade, power relations, and a disposal system that affects the Global South. Through sourcing of materials, labour practices, and appropriation of styles and trends, the western fashion system continues to perpetuate colonial practices that must be unlearnt to build an equitable system.
To understand this relationship, we must first understand the difference between colonization and colonialism. In short, colonization establishes foreign control over target territories and people, whereas colonialism is the policy behind it. This article mainly refers to the current effects of modern colonialism from the Colonial Era. Therefore Global North countries' colonization of lands mainly in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The major countries active in this form of colonization included Spain, Portugal, France, Russia , Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States beginning in the 18th century.
Most of these countries had a period of almost complete power in world trade at some stage in the period from roughly 1500 to 1900. This power came from the resources, both natural and human, that were exploited in colonised countries.
This map shows the principle flows of trade from 1880 to 1914 when European empires made a last gasp attempt to secure colonies so that they could ensure a flow of raw materials to their factories and manufacturing bases in Europe.
Many of these routes remain unchanged, for what is now the trade of raw materials and labour for fashion. Previously colonising countries are also where the most established brands in the world, in particular for luxury, are based, setting trends and styles, and being in the position of power in purchasing deals.
One thing that might help us visualise this reality might be to imagine it the other way around. Are there many African or Asian brands that are producing in Europe…? Colonial countries enriched themselves, and the effects are still present today: they are much wealthier countries, with higher GDP per capita, and therefore much higher labour costs. This is one of the reasons brands based in the Global North often produce in the Global South.
SOURCING OF MATERIALS
One of the main ways colonialism has impacted the fashion industry is through the exploitation of natural resources. Many fashion brands rely on colonized countries for the raw materials needed to create their products, such as cotton, wool, leather, and polyester. These resources are often extracted at the expense of the local communities and ecosystems, leading to environmental degradation and social injustice.
It is often the case that improvement becomes the alibi for appropriation, but instead of improvement we call it ‘development’, or ‘growth’. This alibi is used to justify the colonization of lands, forests, fisheries, and the atmosphere. In a capitalist society, anything can become justified if it contributes to the GDP.
A quick look at trade history shows us how colonial countries took advantage of local economies specialized in textile production.
When The East India Company was established in the 1600s, they took control of India’s cotton market and became the largest importer of cotton to Europe. To finance their own expansion and exports, Britain began collecting the revenues from Bengal and halted imports of precious metals that balanced trade in their economy. Cotton revenues financed the spread of English power across India and the war against Napoleon.
During British control, a systematic plan was implemented to overpower the Indian textile industry by coercing Indian farmers to abandon their farming of subsistence crops in favour of cotton. This practice led farmers into debt and reduced their food supply. Sadly, these practices show up in a modern context through an unequal profit distribution between brands and suppliers.
DISTRIBUTION OF IMPACT
Today, farmers that grow raw material, only get an extremely small portion of the price of the final product. It is obviously different from the past, when colonizers stole natural resources from colonized countries, without giving anything to the original owners of the land, and the slaves who worked on them, but the power and profit imbalance remains.
Luxury fashion is still produced in Europe, whereas China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and other poor Asian countries are the largest producers of fast fashion fabrics and stitched clothes. It's no coincidence that fast fashion brands are drawn here to produce their products. Loose environmental regulations in these countries allow retailers to mass-produce clothing without legal pushback. This strategy of degrading land that is far away, to source cheap material, is the same that was applied in colonization.
This is linked to another major topic which is the link between colonialism and climate change. For the first time at COP27, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentioned the term "colonialism" in a 2022 report. This means that climate scientists and experts acknowledged that colonialism is a historic and ongoing driver of the climate crisis.
The same mindset of “out of mind, out of sight” comes back at the end of life of clothing. Fast Fashion is using the Global South as a location for discarded clothing, with the excuse of sending it as donation, or for cheap resale. This means that local brands have barely any chance to succeed, as extremely cheap clothing is available, and that entire ecosystems are destroyed. Shocking pictures of the landfills outside Kantamanto, in Ghana, or in the Atacama desert, in Chile, show the scale of this issue. According to Greenpeace, a plan to ban the export of textile waste and promote long lasting, durable and repairable clothing needs to be established internationally through a global treaty.
SOURCING OF LABOUR
In addition to exploiting natural resources, the fashion industry also exploited labor in colonized countries. A legacy of colonialism exists within the fashion system as unregulated, underpaid, and often unsafe labour in often previously colonized countries.
During the Ottoman Empire in the 1800's, women harvested Natural Silk used for the French luxury market. The value of silk production to the European market falls in stark contrast to the low wages and long hours granted to workers, who after the industry halted were left with the great famine in their region. Colonial intervention destroyed self-sufficient economies which created a mass of workers and consumers dependent on capital for basic necessities.
Colonial labour practices did not disappear in the Global South but rather evolved into a method for brands in the Global North to increase their bottom line. Bangladesh, well known in the media for housing fast-fashions' sweatshops, holds 5,400 factories that employ four million people (majority of them being women). Shahida, a sewing machine operator working nine hours, and often 14 hours a day, makes the equivalent of $90 a month. The problem isn't the factory owners, it is the system of fashion that has allowed for this type of labour to become expected.
Another issue that leads brands to outsource their production is the power that allows them to shift the responsibility outside their organisation, to countries that have no other choice, where people would work under any condition to be able to feed their families.
Here we would like to quote an expert in explaining the reasons behind outsourcing, Kim van der Weerd, in her article:
"The decision to outsource production was at least in part a way for brands to insulate themselves from the risk inherent to unstable demand, inherent to the fickle business of fashion. It was a way of coping with the catch-22 of having just the right amount of capacity to successfully deal with busy periods and slow periods, good seasons, and bad seasons. It was a way to shift inventory on to someone else's books. The risk wasn't eliminated, it was passed down to someone else. Usually, that someone was a person of color in a developing part of the world. In other words, brands, comprised primarily of white employees from countries with relative economic might, leveraged their power to shift financial risk onto less privileged people of color. The impossible task of balancing safe working conditions, living wages, increasing consumer demand for cheaper goods, job security for workers, and the risks inherent to the fashion industry was passed down."
STYLES AND TRENDS
Fashion trends change quickly due to the speed at which fashion is produced, which is often rooted in a historically colonial production method. The relationship between colonialism and trends is evident in how the Western Fashion Industry has long dictated what is considered fashionable, often appropriating and commodifying traditional clothing and designs from colonized countries. This cultural appropriation reinforces the power dynamic between the colonizers and the colonized, as the West profits from exploiting these cultures. We have expanded on this topic in our article about Indigenous rights.
To move towards a more sustainable fashion industry, it is essential to address the legacy of colonialism and its ongoing impacts.
What would this look like in practice? Kimberely Jenkins, a renowned researcher who specializes in the sociological and historical influences of clothing, outlines three ways individuals can move away from colonial systems.
Divest from parts of the industry electing to spend your income and resources within systems that contribute in meaningful ways to your community and culture.
Educate your team on the ways colonialism influences your life
Community; spreading your community to actors in the industry
To address colonialism means looking at the dark underbelly of fashion. Brands must explore business models rooted in circularity and longevity. Decolonizing fashion is dismantling a system predicated on speed at the expense of quality, the environment, and garment workers' rights.
Brands must acknowledge the fashion industry's role in exploiting natural resources and labour, and work towards more equitable and sustainable sourcing practices. It also means acknowledging and respecting the cultural traditions of other countries rather than appropriating and profiting from them.
When making supply chain decisions, decision-makers in the fashion industry should be asking: am I taking advantage of an unfair system based on colonialist relationships between countries? Is there a way to ensure that everyone is considered equal in this design?
There is a significant opportunity for large brands to financially support and celebrate indigenous artisans. Instead of stealing designs online, they could reach out to the designer, ask whether they agree for their design to be used, pay a significant design fee, and clearly advertise and credit the ownership and meaning of it. There is also a great opportunity to create jobs with dignity to support the communities still suffering the negative consequences of colonialism by ensuring that farmers and factory workers earn a living wage and have access to growth opportunities.
Acknowledging these issues of power, exploitation, and cultural appropriation is the first step but, luckily, we have economists, sociologists, researchers and more who are interested in helping fashion transition to new models of business that will re-design the way fashion operates.
How do you see a world where fair trade in fashion is the norm? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to discuss!
Until next time friends, always be curious and stay diligent.