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The Urgency of Redefining Sustainability to Include Racial Equality at Reformation

By Christine Tan

By now you might have seen this meme circulating on Twitter and Instagram, comically poking fun at the hollowness of messages on behalf of brands claiming to support the Black community. 

What has transpired since early June has been the “outing” of brands and CEOs that claim to support the Black community, but have failed to own up to their own shortcomings in anti-racist efforts within their own ranks. In other words, these companies are virtue signaling — showing support for a cause via a black Instagram tile without doing any internal work. Employees have been speaking up to decry not only a failure of diversity and inclusion programs, but toxic racist cultures and their leaderships’ attempts to subordinate Black talent at those companies. 

Reformation, which has been called “the most successful sustainable fashion brand of all time” by New York Magazine, is one example of an organization guilty of perpetuating systemic racism in the workplace. “Sustainable” and “ethical” are loaded, misleading terms when it does not extend to Reformation’s treatment of its few Black employees. 

Claims of being ethical, like environmental considerations in manufacturing and sourcing, start to crumble when people are left out of the equation. Whether it’s racial bias that keeps Black employees out of leadership roles, an environment that is hostile to Black employees, as exemplified by a white VP posting a photo of herself eating fried chicken to “celebrate” Black History Month, or failure to feature Black talent as influencers and models, Reformation clearly has issues to address. Otherwise, cynicism would suggest to consumers that these broad claims are but a marketing ploy. 

Although there are countless other companies that deserve a critical eye in what may be virtue-signaling, those that publish their work in sustainability appear insincere and tone deaf if they fail to expand their narrow focus from environmental to broader ESG initiatives like racial justice, particularly within their own work place. Improvements in materials, packaging, and sourcing are all laudable efforts in reducing a company’s environmental impact. However as consumers look to their favorite brands for moral leadership, this is no longer sufficient. 

Historically many fashion brands have been silent around social justice issues for fear that appearing “political” would result in lost profits, but Gen Z and Millennial consumers want to see the commitment of companies in using their platform to advocate for issues important to them. The exacerbation of economic and social disparities by the pandemic coupled with the endless footage of racism and violence caught on camera against Black Americans have changed the landscape in 2020. Companies that claim to be sustainable must include its people — suppliers, garment workers, the local community and its corporate employees — and racial equality as part of their business model. Consider this holistic view as an idealistic version of stakeholder capitalism

No company is perfect, but each must reckon with its shortcomings in order to match up with bold claims of support for the Black community. Otherwise, when companies appear to be inauthentic, consumers will gladly go elsewhere. This is particularly true for a company like Reformation, which has capitalized on being “responsible.” But today being responsible also means actively working to be anti-racist. Sustainability as an ethos can no longer singularly equate with environmentalism when Black Americans are disproportionately dying from racism

Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/Campster/status/1267183124582215680

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