Does the Ethical Fashion Community Have a Diversity Problem?

Recent controversies on Instagram and beyond have highlighted issues in the rapidly growing space.
Author:
Publish date:
Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Photo: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Son de Flor, a line of cotton, wool and linen dresses from Lithuania, traffics in the kind of twee, Baltic fairy-tale aesthetic that has become an Instagram genre unto itself.

The brand is especially beloved by women who espouse the virtues of organic fabrics and slow lifestyles. In one of Son de Flor's Instagram posts, a redhead in a smock dress ploughs her sturdy black boots through the snow as a pony trails behind; in another, a pair of sisters with matching Peter Pan collars perch on a bicycle in the middle of fallow farmland. You can almost feel a chill descend. Everything is so hygge you could die. And, until recently, the people featured were exclusively white.

This was a problem for some of Son de Flor's fans, who, sometime in January, left comments appealing for some degree of racial diversity. This wasn't an unreasonable request; Son de Flor, though based in a country where more than 84 percent is native Lithuanian (read: white), is an international-facing brand that populates its Instagram posts with the Japanese symbols for "snow" and "forest girl."

But Son de Flor glossed over this feedback with statements that amounted to "We love everyone, we just feature our friends," according to someone who witnessed what happened before comments were scrubbed. (Son de Flor did not respond to requests for an interview.) The situation attracted the attention of people who, even if they were not avowed white supremacists themselves, used language that echoed white-supremacist ideology. Not all were subtle about it: A white mommy-vlogger who styles herself "Wife with a Purpose" launched a tirade on YouTube pronouncing the commotion ridiculous and averring that "it's O.K. to be white."

My source, who is Black and asked not to be named because of safety concerns, says the deluge of racially charged invectives she and other commenters of color received prompted them to set their Instagram accounts to private. Son de Flor has since apologized, unequivocally, and included among its recent posts shots of a Black model and one Japanese customer. But the episode cast a pall over a community already struggling over questions about whiteness, power and diversity in the space.

Related Articles
Why Does So Much Ethical Fashion Look the Same?
The Next Wave of Sustainable Fashion is All About Regenerative Farming
Fashion Retailers, Non-Profits and NYC Government Band Together to Divert Clothing From Landfills

Like any other platform with a billion users worldwide, Instagram has managed to self-organize into a loose assemblage of tribes that revolve around shared interests. Ethical fashion, appearing at the junctions of minimalism, social justice and sustainability, is one of them. But ethical fashion Instagrammers also often fit a similar mold: female, young, lithe and white — perhaps, as some have suggested to me, because young, lithe white women are likelier to have the time, money and resources to hone their online personas and cultivate a following. That, and the benefit of implicit bias.

"I have noticed that brands seem extremely keen to work with white Instagrammers more so than brown and Black accounts," says Aja Barber (@ajabarber), a Black American stylist and writer who lives in London. "White influencers can have fewer followers and fewer interactions and still have sponsored posts galore. My space is not sponsored but I will review sustainable, ethical and slow-fashion products from brands I enjoy. But I still notice that certain brands will never approach me."

To be a woman of color in a sea of homogeny on ethical fashion Instagram can be a lonely experience, which is why a pair of Asian-American women devised the hashtag #10x10representationmatters as a complement to Lee Vosburgh's 10-items-over-10-days wardrobe challenge last fall.

"[We] created the hashtag as a way to connect with other people in the slow, ethical and sustainable community who wanted to share about lack of representation, not just in these fashion spaces, but also in our lives as marginalized people across a whole spectrum of identities," says Emi Ito (@little_kotos_closet), an educator from the Bay Area.

So when a white ethical fashion writer named Stella (not her real name) popped up in the hashtag feed with a post asking readers what they felt was missing from the ethical fashion conversation, Ito "felt like it was a critique" of the intimate and emotional testimonials from women of color, plus-size women and transgender or nonbinary individuals. Despite their consternation, the comments she and others left were respectful if firm and honest, she says. One of the women involved describes being "genuinely curious" over Stella's choice to use the hashtag.

Stella's recollection of the events, however, is a little different. After dashing off her post, which she says she wrote for the purpose of opening up discussion, she left for a bachelorette party and was away from her phone for hours. When she logged back into Instagram, her comments section had erupted. "Normally I might get 20 comments," she says. "I had over 100." Most of them were pretty innocuous, but then she started reading comments from several women of color, including Ito. "The first one said something to the effect of 'You have erased women of color. You have co-opted our movement,'" Stella says. "I was confused at that point because I knew that they were upset but I wasn't quite sure why."

Stella, who asked not to use her real name because she didn't want to reopen old wounds, says she eventually hashed things out with Ito over Instagram messages. Before they reached a détente, however, things were pretty fraught. Stella issued a public apology the next day, but when she shut off comments because she didn't want her white followers coming to her defense, however well-intentioned, she was then accused of silencing women of color. When she offered the use of her platform to amplify marginalized voices, she was reprimanded for asking minorities to do emotional labor.

In the end, Stella deleted her Instagram account, which had amassed about 11,000 followers. (She hasn't retained any screenshots of the exchanges that prompted the action.) A "mob effect," buoyed by so-called white allies, was triggering her unresolved post-traumatic stress — stress that stemmed, ironically, from the white nationalist riots that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. "We were stuck inside the church for a couple of hours because there were Nazis outside," she explains. After experiencing panic attacks for five consecutive days, she pulled the plug. "It was just not helping me move forward."

Stella was "very, very upset," says Alden Wicker, a freelance journalist who also blogs about ethical fashion at Ecocult. As the then-president and technical business owner of Ethical Writers and Creatives (EWC), a network-cum-union of some 70 bloggers, vloggers, influencers and other creative types that included Stella as a member, Wicker says she "felt responsible for the ethical fashion community" and so leapt into the fray.

Several people I spoke to described Wicker's interactions with a group of women of color and one white non-binary person as "aggressive" and "reactionary." There was an exchange over direct messaging where one witness says Wicker held them responsible for Stella's emotional breakdown and called them out for "asshole behavior." (It ended with a spate of mutual blockings.) More provocatively, Wicker created an Instagram Story (some of which is screenshotted here) that listed the handles of five people she claimed were "engaging in a campaign to force every ethical Instagrammer to acknowledge how wise they are on race." Her advice? "Just block them."

Ito strongly disputes Wicker's characterization, describing it as slanderous. "I am not a 'bully' and I am not a 'divisive' person," she says.

Benita Robledo (@benitarobledo), a Pennsylvania-based ethical fashion advocate and a former member of the EWC who left the organization for unrelated reasons, says that people of color are burdened with "this requirement to be nice" no matter the circumstance. 

"As a woman of color, I cannot tell you the number of times that I would love to vent my fury the way white people are allowed to, but I know that if I show even 50 percent of how upset I am I'll be perceived as the angry Latina," says Robledo, who is of Mexican, Colombian and European descent and identifies as mestiza. "My heart really went out to these women. They played by the rules, stated their case politely and still were vilified."

Wicker tells me that, in hindsight, she regrets the call-out, though she asserts that none of the people tagged received any harassment from her Instagram Story, nor did she intend for them to. Stella, she adds, wasn't the only EWC member being pilloried. Others had complained of feeling pressured to denounce The Minimalist Wardrobe, a blog that some people say failed to protect Deborah Shepherd (@clothedinabundance), an African American woman, from racially coded vitriol in response to a story she contributed. (Shepherd declined to speak on the record, directing me instead to a post she wrote about her ordeal.) Wicker went on Instagram Live to discuss the harassment Shepherd received in a manner that appeared to blame the response on the way the article was written rather than racism.

"[Wicker] explicitly said that I wrote a 'strongly worded article' and later went on to discuss how she's been a journalist for X amount of years and has 'thick skin,'" Shepherd writes, before quoting an Amnesty International and ElementAI study that says Black women politicians and journalists are 84 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be targeted in abusive or "problematic" tweets. "So, for a privileged, white woman journalist to say that is extremely dehumanizing."

Wicker's words ignited a wildfire of fury and more than a few retaliatory call-outs. When she finally delivered a statement on Instagram Stories, half of it, witnesses say, comprised a "business plan" on how to diversify the EWC. The organization became a lightning rod for Instagram's animus. Wicker's critics swarmed the EWC's Instagram page, demanding her resignation.

"I think there may be a misconception that EWC is a big, powerful business, but it's just a professional support group where people check in once in a while," says Kaméa Chayne (@kameachayne), a Taiwanese-American creative from Los Angeles who is who is taking on an interim leadership role. "[Wicker] ultimately decided what actions EWC took or did not take. When she used our EWC account to make statements for herself, it reflected upon our entire group, and all of us started to get messages from people telling us to disassociate ourselves from a racist, white supremacist organization."

The EWC, she notes, is in the midst of deciding what steps to take next. In the meantime, it will be taking down all of its public accounts and handing the website back to Wicker. “All that's left is an informal chat group with no formal title for now,” Chayne added. 

In February, facing virtual pitchforks, Wicker decided to abandon her 30,000 Instagram followers, essentially running herself out of town. "I just had a lot of people, mostly white women, coming into my account and telling me that I'm racist or a crappy human being," she says. Friends who tried to defend her, including people of color, were "screamed at by white women who were there trying to be allies."

But leaving Instagram hasn't brought about a neat conclusion. Search "Alden Wicker" under Google News, for instance, and one of the first results is a blog post from Eco Warrior Princess titled, "You Can't Be An 'Ethical Influencer' While Perpetuating White Supremacy." The link now goes to a 404 error page, but the excerpt provided by Google makes it clear that the story is about the "controversy surrounding" Wicker. (Jennifer Nini, the Filipino-Australian editor-in-chief of Eco Warrior Princess, did not respond to an email asking why she took it down.)

A cached view of the piece taps into a collective vein of rage. "Alden consistently demonized women of color and other marginalized people," its author, a white woman from Washington D.C., writes. "She committed some of the biggest sins that privileged white 'liberals' often fall into... You can't just say 'I'm not a racist' and stop."

The stream of invective has followed Wicker to Twitter, where until this month she operated under the handles @aldenwicker and @ecocult. "I don't think Alden Wicker is the best person to talk about this, seeing how she refuses to listen to POC and instead tells people to block them on Instagram," one commenter wrote in response to a link to an article in which Wicker was quoted. Another, replying to one of Wicker's tweets directly, asked if "this is your answer to offending so many womxn of colour and doing no work towards your racism?" Wicker deleted her Twitter accounts.

Despite her public bravado, it's clear that the events of the past few months have taken their toll. She wonders if the tight-knit ethical fashion community in New York is beginning to shun her. She's lost thousands of dollars worth of paid collaborations from Ecocult. It's gotten to the point that she worries people are "looking at her weird."

"I'm like very paranoid now about who knows what happened and what people think of me, and whether people think I'm racist," she says. "And it is affecting my career. So for these people to say that they have no power and they have no responsibility for anything that happens after they put out a call-out, that's bullshit. And they know it, too." Her voice falls: "They know it."

So why not just apologize? Sincerely, authentically and emphatically apologize?

"The apology that would satisfy them, I don't know if it exists. Or if it does, it follows a certain script that I really disagree with, which is 'I was wrong, I'm racist, thank you to this group of women for enlightening me' and then tagging them and sending them more followers and engagement," she says. "There's really not much I can say at this point that's not going to be deliberately twisted and taken out of context."

She agrees she's made some missteps, including not employing better de-escalation techniques. But Wicker also says she has never disagreed with the idea of racial diversity in the fashion industry and, in fact, wants to see more people of color thrive. It's the strong-arm tactics of her antagonists that she takes issue with, and the fact that social media is a flawed conduit for rigorous discourse.

"Am I racist in the sense that I absorbed the messages that society has given me around white skin being better? Yeah, probably. I've benefited a lot from all of the privileges. I have all of them. Good education, white skin, I'm healthy, able-bodied. All of that," she says, adding that she tries to "spend" her privilege, through the content she creates, to uplift people of color. "I've done my best to educate myself."

And yet a number of people say that Wicker's actions on Instagram not only fomented harm in a very visceral way, but they continue to hurt, especially because she is the frequent arbiter of what is and isn't ethical. One of them is Aditi Mayer (@aditimayer), a writer and photographer of Indian origin who lives Los Angeles. After Wicker's call-out, Mayer direct-messaged her to ask her why she was telling people to block women of color. "As someone who has for very long been at the forefront of sustainable bloggers, [Wicker] holds a lot of power," Mayer says. "And for women of color, our identity is inherently politicized whether we like it or not."

Much has been written lately about "white fragility," a term coined in 2011 by diversity trainer, social-justice educator and author Robin DiAngelo, who is white, to describe the tear-streaked defensiveness white people have when their insulated ideas of race are challenged. Blocking people of color so you don't have to be held accountable is an "act of silencing" and erasure that, when performed without context, is a "form of violence in itself," Mayer says.

The truth is there are no easy answers and certainly no satisfying ones. And the issues raised on social media are just a microcosm of what women of color experience in the everyday world. "Hear me when I say that this is not Instagram drama," Shepherd, the former Minimalist Wardrobe contributor, writes on her blog. "This is a deeply woven racial issue that has been stitched into the fabric of our country and sewn into the ethical fashion industry."

Mayer points out that ethical fashion exists to "look at larger systems of power," yet it's often rooted a kind of white saviorism where when "you have this distinct binary of a Black or brown woman being the producer and then a white woman consuming it." Céline Semaan, the Bierut-born founder of the brand Slow Factory, has written about why understanding sustainability means coming to grips with its links with colonialism. And Pakistani-American Ayesha Barenblat, founder of the nonprofit Remake, wonders why all-white panels are such a ubiquitous sight at sustainability conferences "even though the people and communities most impacted by fashion's decisions are people of color."

For ex-Instagrammer Stella, the conflicts involving Son de Flor, Wicker and even the knitting community, where a white woman recently drew ire for describing India in culturally imperialistic terms, are manifestations of broader tensions currently playing out across a fractured United States.

"For me, [all of this has] exposed the depth of collective trauma that people of color experience, but also the depth of sort of political trauma that this whole country is experiencing under the Trump regime," she says. "And I think all of those things play into each other and make us feel like we're incapable of reconciliation."

Stay current on the latest trends, news and people shaping the fashion industry. Sign up for our daily newsletter.