Sunday, April 18, 2021

More on the Sacrifice Zones of Fashion

 On 3 April 2021 I had honour of being invited to answer a question about sacrifice zones of fashion in a ‘Conversations’ webinar series hosted in 2021 by the Research Collective for Decolonising Fashion. The event was built around my publication, 'Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainabilitypublished in Fashion Theory Vol 24, no. 6. 

The below is a recording of the event and a transcript of my answer. 


Passcode: @s&e4ud@ 


Hello, good day, and thank you, Erica and Angela, for this amazing opportunity to speak with colleagues all around the world. I feel very honoured to have my work included in this important series for re-visioning fashion through a decolonial lens. 

Thank you for your insightful question, Erica. 

·      A year and a half ago, we were all still thinking within the customary framework of fashion sustainability: materials used, energy used, and labour used and we hadn’t yet expanded that framework to include social justice. Your question asks me to dig down deep into myself to understand how this article emerged. For me it is not just a question of saying ‘this, this and this have been sacrificed’ -- although I could do that. But I think that it is important to also talk about the process. It wasn’t just writing up simple empirical observation. Empirical observation occurs within a conceptual framework and that is why I think it is necessary to talk, today, about the process of discovery of what is being sacrificed. 

·      I invite everybody to think with me. I know that my process is unique but it is also common. We are learning together; we are exploring how decolonial theory works for us; we are all practitioners trying to build a better world together. We need a diversity of voices and not a dogma. For me right now, contributing to the construction of a more sustainable world is front and centre in my thinking.

  • Why writing this article, and articulating the sacrifice zones, was so challenging for me, had to do with what decolonial theorists call ‘erasure’. In a nutshell, I was attempting to go into conceptual territory that is usually erased from our thinking. Erasure is a conceptual trick that we play on ourselves to allow a status quo to persist. Conceptual blinkers, entrenched habits of thought, vested interest in a standard conceptual framework: it is hard to break free of all of that.
  •   Professor Rolando Vazquez has pointed to ‘remembering’ as an antidote to ‘erasure’. When we have pushed something out of our minds, ‘remembering’ is a radical act, a facilitator of change. It dredges up other ways of thinking and being, other processes and systems, other epistemologies. 

Indigeneity. My article was, in a sense, a proclamation of the value of the indigenous. In our previous meetings, we have talked about modernity incorporating a kind of temporality that demands forgetting. It places the past into a category of irrelevance. The past lies behind us, unable to be recovered.  Modernity asks us to think of the indigenous as bound to disappear because it is a holdover from the past. The engine of unilinear time is assumed to be inevitable and unstoppable. By recognizing the importance of the indigenous, my article is challenging the amnesia that is built into modernity. It is especially radical in the context of fashion, because fashion is all about depicting modernity. Can our concept of fashion survive the recognition of the indigenous? I personally do not see how. In my article, I even go a step further and say that sustainability will depend, in part, on learning fromindigenous systems of sustainable clothing. Of course, this is heresy in the customary framework of fashion, and it felt daring and risky to write it, especially for the leading Journal, Fashion Theory.

 Two Normals - I sensed, while I was writing the piece, that I was connecting dots that are usually not connected. I felt a familiar sort of schizophrenia when I was writing: there is the usual way of perceiving the world, that is familiar in my day-to-day life here in the Global North, familiar, too, through accepted Fashion theory, and then there was my perception that resulted from my experience in Indonesia, that I didn’t really have a language framework to describe, nor even much hope that people here in the Global North will understand. The ‘normalcy’ of here in The Netherlands is so different from the ‘normalcy’ there. For a long time I have felt that the two are like two halves of a whole, and for me to understand the world, I have to go back and forth, and try to come to terms with these two different normals. They are contrasting but complementary realities. I am sure that what I am sensing is the upshot of that economic fact that our wealth in the Global North has much to do with exploitation of the Global South, something that we in the Global North are seldom aware of, except maybe theoretically. When I am in Indonesia, I experience how it plays out in day-to-day life for the people, in their thoughts and feelings, challenges and life choices and perceptions of the world that are prevalent there. I live there in an exceedingly poor village.

·      Economic Apartheid – In the google drive, I provided a link to a podcast interview with Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, who talked about what he called ‘economic apartheid’ in the world. The amnesia of modernity is related to keeping the fact of this apartheid hidden. That is the boundary that decolonial theorists know as the colonial difference.  In previous writings I have referred to dualism in fashion: that fashion carves out an us and them, those with and those without fashion. In my article I was trying to pull this boundary into view.  

·      Showing what is being sacrificed, is showing what is being conceptually erased.  At the time of writing, it felt like an appeal to my readership to please recognize this boundary because it causes so much pain and waste at a thousand levels. I proposed that fashion cannot be sustainable unless there is fairness. Sustainability cannot co-exist with destruction.  

·      And let’s face it: the two halves are both engaged in the same struggle for sustainability on this planet! In this, we are ONE! Not two sides of a complementary whole! That binary pertains only to the current global economic system.

So that was a lengthy backdrop. Now on to the question: What is being Sacrificed?

Sacrifice Zone –I want to begin by looking at the expression ‘sacrifice zone’. 

Wikipedia tells us that the term Sacrifice Zone was coined to refer to ‘regions’ of the world that may be dispensed with – initially it was a reference to regions that would undergo permanent destruction due to atomic fallout or chemical poisoning. Permissible destruction in the interests of industry, economy and power. 

o   The concept and phenomenon of ‘Sacrifice Zone’ should give everybody pause. The term makes thinkable and even normalizes what is utterly scandalous. That somebody, or some group, has the ego and assumes the power to eradicate and destroy a part of life on earth for the sake of short-term financial gain in their own interest? Think about it. This is preposterous. Totally unconscionable. Absolutely ridiculous when you think about it. Incredible in the literal sense of the word. I would argue that this concept of ‘sacrifice zone’ is an expression of the kind of conceptual erasures that decolonial theorists discuss.  

o   What are the erasures in Sacrifice Zones? By focusing exclusively on waste ‘regions’, the term ‘sacrifice zone’ leaves out 1) the biological diversity in that region, 2) the people living there, and 3) their culture(s). All are conceptually erased and fully negated to the extent that they are totally expendable. Off the screen.  I think of the Cree people who once lived on the Alberta tar sands, the most famous sacrifice zone on earth. When they resisted the total annihilation of their land, air, water, their source of food, their history, their culture, the Canadian government deemed their resistance illegal. And still does. Even in this time of climate emergency. 

  • This is the conceptual erasure of people and culture in a sacrifice zone. It is ‘collateral damage’, to use another war term, ignored and deemed irrelevant compared to the ‘greater good’ of profits and power. 

 How does Fashion intersect with Sacrifice Zones? Almost all of our food, houses, cars, energy, mobile phones and computers, you name it, are currently produced by benefiting from sacrifice zones. Rolando Vazquez refers to the challenge of living an ethical life. Purchasing a simple chocolate bar for our own pleasure, brings harm to somebody someplace else. 

 A. Fast Fashion benefits from Sacrifice Zones:

1.     Materials: They are produced in sacrifice zones. 

·      Industrial agriculture, e.g. production of cotton through agri-business – think of how the cotton plantations in the USA made use of slave labour and expelled indigenous populations from the land; how cotton production in India expanded during the colonial era, destroying the local economy. Note that in the ‘customary framework’ of fashion sustainability, there is mention of the amount of water, the pesticides and herbicides  used to produce cotton, etc. but nothing about the implication for peoples and cultures who once inhabited the land, or are brought in to do the work. Conceptual erasure.

·      production of synthetic fibres made of fossil fuels – 7 billion barrels now needed to produce synthetic fibres – with enormous expansion planned for the future. 

2. Labour: The Fast Fashion industry makes use of ‘displaced peoples’ for cheap labour.

  •  In 2014, there were 60 million people working in the garment industry, most of them women in the Global South. I don’t know what percentage constitutes ‘displaced persons’, but it can only be extremely high. We need to ask, what has gone on in their lives that they are they willing to submit themselves to the slavery of garment manufacturing? 
  • The ranks of displaced peoples is swelling rapidly: climate change, war, sacrifice zones, land degradation in general. All of these are pushing people off their lands and the ranks of jobless in cities are swelling. See the global report on internal displacement.
  • The customary framework for examining ‘fashion labour’ focuses on wages and working conditions.  But there is a much larger systemic whole that needs to come into view. I  argue that restricting the focus to pay and working conditions, is also a form of conceptual erasure.  
  • And the fast fashion industry is no benefactor, generously giving workers an income, which is how we often like to see it. In fact, it is taking advantage of the destruction of the local and of indigenous lives to produce cheap clothes.

B. Fast fashion is thus complicit in the use, expansion and condoning of sacrifice zones, and this is part and parcel of systemic capitalist exploitation. It benefits hugely from sacrifice zones, and their conceptual erasure.

  • The campaign by Fashion Revolution, “Who Made My Clothes tries, in good faith, to give a face to garment workers, but it falls vastly short of really telling anything about garment workers because the campaign is operating within the system of conceptual erasures characteristic of consumers in the Global North and our current thinking about fast fashion. ‘Garment workers’ are narrowed down to  elements in an economic system, stripped of their other human features. 

Last, but not least, 

C.  Fast Fashion Industry creates sacrifice zones. This has been fully overlooked, until now, by fashion sustainability activists and theorists.

I am hereby making the argument that the concept of ‘sacrifice zones’ is perceived far too narrowly. Furthermore, the sustainability framework has to broaden to include not just biodiversity but also humans and cultural diversity. The conceptual erasures within the sustainability framework, are related to the erasures built into customary fashion theory.

 I don’t have time to get into all of the mechanics of how fast fashion results in the destruction of culture.  But very briefly, throughout my anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia, I have witnessed the decline of indigenous cultures and their clothing systems. When young women leave their villages to go to work in factories, they leave behind their family, language, way of life, culture, rituals, customs, and clothing traditions. When you perceive the complexity of the making of clothing in their own culture, e.g.  weaving work, it quickly becomes clear that age-old, extremely sophisticated, culturally embedded skills are being lost to do mind-numbing, unfulfilling work. As individuals, as ‘garment workers’, they become de-skilledTheir cultural talents and skills are wasted. They are preyed upon in factory settings by male bosses and management in general; poor pay and working conditions are symptomatic of that. Their humanity is being dispensed with; they are being wasted and destroyed. I would argue that these labourers are also a sacrifice zone.

 Their cultures are also being drained.  The loss of ethnic diversity is a global crisis as well, but it is not receiving the attention that the environmental crisis receives. This is  another facet of conceptual erasure. Cultural loss includes the disappearance of:

  • epistemologies, ways of thinking and understanding the world 
  • including indigenous and local clothing systems including designs, techniques, styles – intangible cultural heritage. 
  • Including local knowledge about the physical environment
  • It involves the destruction of identity and simultaneously erodes social and political stability. The loss of culture creates social time bombs.
  • Think of the calls by cultural activists, that languages and cultures are disappearing. 

Wikipedia tells us that of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it is predicted that 90% will be extinct in the next 30 years. 

The process of that kind of death is what I have been witnessing in my own little corner in Indonesia. And Fast fashion is complicit in this. Until now fashion theorists have failed to connect those dots. That, I argue, is conceptual erasure. 

Fashion is like the forest industry. We chop down forests to make toothpicks and toilet paper, destroying them to make money. So we end up with lots of money and increasingly little of value.

With fast fashion we make articles of clothing with no value, and in the process we destroy traditions and cultures in the world, including clothing traditions. 

We have erased this awareness, conceptually, in the Global North. And the Fashion system functions in such a way that the owners of the cultures being destroyed eventually believe that their culture has no value. Because it is not valued by ‘modern’ society. And so they flee or disregard their own culture as if it was inferior. But this is another huge discussion, so I will stop here.

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