It’s warm, diverse, and passionate – yet sometimes myopic, exclusionary, and pandering. Researching the supply chains, power dynamics, and western apathy that make global exploitation possible and profitable in the fashion industry helped me grow throughout my teens and early 20s into a more well-rounded political advocate, however, as I gather expertise in the particulars of human suffering and environmental destruction, I find the sustainable fashion community lacking in the holistic, intersectional public sector solutions I imagine. I will continue to live my values and extricate myself from that system when able, and I will continue to support regulation and anti-trust legislation preventing the garment industry from exploiting its workers and the planet. I’ll still live the sustainable fashion lifestyle.
Breakup may be a misnomer, but I’ve come to realize that I’m disillusioned with the community that grew around the sustainable fashion industry, because as it grew, it inherited many of the problems associated with conventional fashion.
The fashion industry affects every person who wears clothing, and sustainable fashion activism remains a bright shimmer in the constellation of social and environmental justice, made more poignant by its relation to other issues. However, the singular focus on personal choice is a distraction from radical political action. I had been uneasy about highlighting personal responsibility, that the onus to change falls onto poor consumers rather than the global economic and political elite, for some time, and New York Magazine columnist and deputy editor and author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” David Wallace-Wells echoed my sentiment in no uncertain terms in his interview with Chris Hayes on the Why is This Happening podcast.
“I have a rant about how lifestyle choices are a distraction from politics, which are the real solution,” he says, “…The UN IPCC says to avoid the two degree threshold of catastrophe, we will need to half our global emissions by 2030 and that will require a global mobilization at the scale of WWII starting this year.”
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I’m not saying that people who have the ability and means to shouldn’t make lifestyle choices in accordance with their values, I wouldn’t be a vintage-clad vegan otherwise, but those choices must be done in congress with political action, especially for those of us who live in powerful, Western countries. I don’t see enough discourse about global politics or calls to action within the sustainable fashion community, and I wish there were room in the space for discussions about wealth inequality, systemic white supremacy, misogyny, access to healthcare, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, the treatment of refugees or any other issue that will inevitably become intertwined with climate issues as humans adapt to our altered world.
Ironically, as sustainable fashion becomes more popular and therefore profitable, it’s adopted some of the corporate tones of conventional fashion spaces with just a veneer of “wokeness.” There are more stylists than activists among the most visible and vocal proponents of this growing industry. Sustainable fashion still relies on capitalism and consumerism, two ideologies that accelerated climate decline to the point that the past 30 years were more detrimental to climate than the rest of human history combined.
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Furthermore, these self-proclaimed sustainable or ethical brands necessarily engage in traditional marketing tactics to cajole their audience into buying. Fashion marketing, regardless of the brand, relies on exclusionary visuals and messages which appeal to a mass market but disenfranchise disabled, gender nonconforming, or non-white people while manipulating insecurities rooted deeply in gender, race, and class. Influencers vie for sponsorships and free swag from brands who choose “safe” personalities to represent them. If you’re too outspoken (or even just a POC), you miss opportunities. This incentivises ethical influencers to avoid questioning whether one can buy into sustainability, if there should be penalties for brands who contract with un-unionized factories, or if conventional textile farming should still be subsidized in much of the world.
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The predominant trend among influencers is towards professional-quality outfit photos captioned with vaguely platitudinal and positive captions that claim a change must be made, but rarely do you see specific policies, politicians, or organizations given their explicit support. I’m sure there are avowed Socialist or Social Justice Warrior fashion blogs, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Corporate advertising is the great sterilizer of culture, and that’s also true for #sponsored posts which come with the understanding that the social media personality in question will speak positively of the brand and be a safe representative of their message.
I’m skeptical of performative social liberalism by woke brands that co-opt social movements and package them into consumable pieces for mass market appeal. Not radical enough to challenge the status quo, but feel-good enough to make consumers feel good about their choices, the process breeds apathy, people feel ‘I’ve done enough’. Messaging about one’s ethics and sustainability points (no matter how true) may belie lobbying efforts towards fewer regulations or fewer taxes. They’re not charities. The founders of these companies still make a considerable salary, and their investors (if they sought VC funding) are tied to even larger industries. The obvious exclusions to this rule are the myriad artisans making their own products with no or minimal staff, but they aren’t driving the culture in the same way companies with robust advertising budgets and fulfillment networks do.
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Maybe this space needs to metamorphosize from a fashion community with interests in social justice into a social justice community for which fashion is just one facet. The fashion world is external – seeking validation through mimicry of style leaders or so-called stylists. That’s not to say it’s unimportant. Style is a vehicle of self-expression, the garment supply chain is an incredibly unsustainable and exploitative industry, and fashion tells the story of culture. But when individualized, the discourse around slow fashion becomes about how someone can look attractive or stylish. It’s boring.
Instead, if we focus on what we value and how we live it, share it, and affect change, we can have broader discussions about the world we hope to create. For me, that includes radical inclusivity, anti-racism work, economic justice, environmental stewardship, and access to education and healthcare. Fashion will necessarily be a part of that discourse. Continue sharing the things that you love, but if you have a platform, don’t curate it to be palatable to corporate brands. Make them work for your approval. If you care about the planet and garment workers, stay curious about what large-scale collective action you can support. Find where can you and donate your time, money, and expertise to that end. Maybe even doing so in the sustainable outfits that are a part of, rather than the extent of, your activism.
Keen to push the movement forward beyond just ‘shopping consciously’? Read our article An Open Letter to the Ethical Fashion Movement which provides a comprehensive list of what you can do to take action.
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