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DISCLOSING RACISM IN FASHION WITH BREEANNA MENDIOLA

Breeanna Mendiola

November, 20th 2020

The Black-Lives-Matter movement is present everywhere, bloggers and influencers speak out against discrimination, and more and more designers showcase their collections on diverse models — have we abolished racism? Not yet. In an interview with Staiy, blogger Breeanna Mendiola discloses how racism is still alive in the industry of (sustainable) fashion.

Words By Marina Hoyer 

Racism comes in all shapes and sizes and many of these are subtle. So subtle, in fact, that in our white privilege bubble, they sometimes do not seem to exist. Breeanna Mendiola is not part of this bubble. As a half-Black half-Mexican woman, she too often bears witness to manifestations of racism within the fields of sustainable fashion, skincare and wellness. The creative entrepreneur originally started her blog to provide lesser-known green fashion and skincare brands with a platform to market their products. “These brands do wonderful things for the planet and many of them help marginalised communities,” says the ecologically conscious blogger, observing the fashion sustainability movement finally reaching the masses. “I feel that people are beginning to shop with a different mindset. If their dollar can help someone instead of being mindlessly spent, then that enriches their shopping experience with meaning. Modern consumers want more than a nice-looking product. They want to have an impact that leads to change. Spending money on brands who are truly sustainable and eco-friendly is a way to achieve that.”

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

After a while, however, Mendiola encountered further challenges. Attending blogger events and conferences surrounding sustainability, she often found herself to be the only person of colour in the room: “In the sustainability space, there aren’t many women that look like me. This motivates me even more to make my voice and experiences heard. My ultimate goal is to raise awareness about sustainable options within my demographic. That’s why I try to take the role of an educator. I want to give my community access to knowledge about sustainable practices that will benefit the planet and their loved ones in the long run.”

If you now catch yourself thinking, ‘What is the problem? All the information is accessible on the internet for the whole world to read’, then think again. To understand this complex issue, one must first understand the relationship that racial inequality has with class and education. Unfortunately, social structures still discriminate against ethnic minorities. Whilst all-white households in the U.S. have an average net worth of $162,770 at their disposal, African-American households possess funds of an abysmally minute $16,300. In short, poverty is much more prevalent amongst those with a darker complexion. It is not difficult to imagine then, that taking the time to google sustainable fashion brands in depth that you cannot afford anyway is probably not at the top of your priority list if you are a mother working double shifts to buy food and clothes for your children. Similarly, children might be pressured to take up a job as soon as their mandatory education is finished, depriving them from the luxury of further studies, where they would develop their critical thinking and learn about society’s structures and systems. Thus, inclusivity must also be about giving equal access and opportunities to marginalised communities. Whether it be the pricing of sustainable brands or the lack of organic products in certain neighborhoods, we must reexamine how sustainable options can be made accessible to everyone.

This dynamic is part of the reason why Mendiola created her blog. Our society admires free spirits who pack in their 9 to 5 job for the sake of expressing themselves creatively as a blogger or an ambassador of a greater cause, yet we sometimes forget that this lifestyle hinges on having financial security — which often comes from having a white, upper-class heritage. Mendiola elaborates: “I speak not only as a blogger, but as a woman who works a regular job; a bi-racial woman who grew up with parents working long hours to support their children; a woman who had to utilise government loans to attend college; a woman whose grandparents had to rely on government aid to purchase groceries, and who were afraid to teach her Spanish because they wanted her to fit in at school. I am all of these women, and I want other people who are also experiencing these walks of life to know that practicing sustainability doesn’t always have to be about having the latest products or spending large sums of money. It’s about working with what you have for a better future for our families. I believe that if sustainability were discussed from this point of view more often, it would be more accessible to people from diverse social classes.”

For the ambitious blogger, this reality is also highly related to representation — or rather, the lack of it. In sustainable fashion, people of colour are still severely underrepresented. “If you’re not able to see yourself in your hero brands, then how can you even begin to conceptualise a game plan for success?” asks Mendiola. Representation can be about the way a person looks or about mutual experiences. For this reason, Mendiola believes sharing the stories of black and brown people within a sustainability framework is key to making the eco movement more inclusive. “From a very young age, I remember already telling myself what I could and could not do, simply based on whether or not other people who looked like me were doing it,” she recalls. “I also remember the times people within my community would tell me their dreams and in the same breath denounce them because they were embarrassed for even dreaming. Representation is a big part of what makes a person believe they can do anything.”

Inclusivity in marketing campaigns is a practice in which conventional fashion brands sometimes come out ahead of their sustainable counterparts. Should we be praising such brands for this? Yes and no. While the development is positive, jumping on the bandwagon of “diversity” does not mean much when the core of the problem lies elsewhere. Whether the clothes are worn by a black or a white model hardly makes a difference when the non-white workers who sewed the clothes are still underpaid and exposed to various hazards. Brands that maintain inhumane working conditions in Bangladesh or Cambodia for the sake of cheap labour are fueling racism in fashion because they exploit the Global South. On the contrary, sustainable brands try to tackle racism at its root by placing more value on social responsibility. They ensure human rights and fair wages for their textile workers, with many labels even relocating their entire manufacturing process to Europe.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

For this reason, the Staiy Sustainability Evaluation encompasses not only environmental but also social standards. As one of our five pillars, we thoroughly analyse a brand’s working conditions before partnering with them. Besides this, we support various projects that help communities all over the Global South, ranging from women’s empowerment in Rwanda to tackling water scarcity in Kenya. Mendiola agrees with Staiy’s approach: “Caring about social sustainability requires people to do just that: care. I feel like we are more likely to get angry if our product malfunctions than if someone gets sick or harmed in the process of creating it. In my opinion, it is immoral to disregard the rights and feelings of the people who make most of the items we interact with on a daily basis. We should be holding companies more accountable when it comes to the safety of factories, where workers are often people of colour — whether it is fashion, beauty, or a new tech gadget. Sustainability is tied to many different facets of our lives beyond the natural environment. It includes the social aspect of caring about others, and that is why I aim to amplify the voices of black, brown and non-white communities.”

As a tip for Staiy readers, Mendiola suggests hearing out people of colour within the sustainable fashion space: “If we listen to their stories before we act, or think before talking over somebody, we can learn a lot more and progress in a positive way.” At Staiy, we embrace this mindset with all our hearts, and thank Breeanna Mendiola for her valuable insights shared here and on her blog, at breeannamendiola.com. 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels