By Sam Gugliemotto
The fashion industry is rife with issues. Many are explicit, like fast fashion’s penchant for greenwashing or the rapid degradation of our topsoil. One issue that we should consider is more ambiguous.
It’s the way we talk about brands – the way that we use language to disassociate brands from their impact and ignore the people who are ultimately responsible for what brands “do”. We use brand names as if we’re talking about a human being. We reference brands actions as if they have the same faculties as a person. Brands should be held more accountable than this since they have more responsibility than a singular individual.
Here are some recent headlines to illustrate this observation:
- “Fashion retailer H&M says data protection breaches unacceptable”
- “Taylor Stitch Makes Us Rethink Our Wardrobe”
- “Can Macy’s Save Itself?”
These are all real article headlines, but the focus here is on the language rather than the content. This doesn’t just happen with headlines either. Think about how we talk about brands casually. We frequently use phrases like “Amazon is taking over the world”. In all of these examples, the brands are humanized.
Here’s the problem
H&M did not “say” anything. Taylor Stitch did not “make” anyone think differently. Macy’s cannot “save itself”.
None of these brands exist in the way they’re presented. It is the employees and investors behind each brand that “do”. They are responsible for setting up this alternative reality. They animate the characters we fall in love with. Their voices are the brand.
It’s unlikely that headlines could convince someone that brands are people too. But are people failing to tie the impact of the brand to the people behind it? Probably, and our behavior as consumers serves as evidence.
While investigating corporate personhood, American philosopher Peter A. French notes that corporations are the collective decisions of executives and the board of directors.
Take the world’s largest social media company Facebook for example. Mark Zuckerberg is the founder, CEO, public face and majority shareholder of Facebook. This makes him primarily responsible for what happens at the company and thus Facebook’s impact is equally attributable to him.
Why it happens
There’s a lot of reasons why this language is commonplace. First and foremost, it’s convenient. It’s comical to imagine what an article would look like if every brand name was replaced with “the humans who make decisions on behalf of [brand name]”?
It’s Prince-esque. “The collection of individuals formerly known as Brand.” More truthful? Maybe. More practical? Definitely not.
Additionally, consider the effectiveness of brand personification. Wendy’s has a popular Twitter account that talks like a real person. Tying brands to a distinct persona makes them more memorable: Colonel Sanders of KFC, Flo from Progressive, the Most Interesting Man in the World, Mr. Clean.
Fashion companies noticeably tie their names and brand images to real people, often founders, include: Chanel, Abercrombie & Fitch, Air Jordan, Carhartt, and Louis Vuitton to name a few.
It’s a gimmick that’s great for marketers but one that continues to separate the perception of brands from reality.
Another factor? There’s no one person who is ultimately responsible for a brand. The majority of employees can’t necessarily affect large-scale change on their employer.
All in all it’s easy to imagine a brand as its own entity and our language often reflects this.
Adjusting how we talk about brands
H&M is one of the largest fashion brands in the world. They’re part of a group of fashion retailers referred to as “fast fashion”. These brands are indeed fast, producing new styles of clothing ceaselessly for the over 50 “micro-seasons” they’ve invented. They are also largely responsible for reckless consumption and large-scale waste in the fashion industry.
Related Post: The Top 5 Ethical Issues in the Fashion Industry
So are H&M stakeholders partially to blame for excessive production and waste? Yes. The executive leaders, directors and managers made decisions resulting in producing clothing at the cost of the planet, convincing consumers to buy more than they need, and exploiting and endangering garment factory workers. These people make decisions to continue these practices. People, not brands, made these awful things happen.
Fashion, notably, is one of the most human intensive industries. While many workers are disempowered, we can’t ignore the sheer number of people who are involved in these decisions.
It’s easy to forgive and extremely easy to forget this when those people and their decisions are hidden behind a brand name such as H&M. Imagine if those people were right beside you. Imagine if you could listen in as they agreed to have the impact they do.
Imagining those real people is how we should think about brands.
Someone has the right idea
In November 2019, Fast Company published an article on “100 individuals most responsible for climate change”. The list was initially published by Climate Culprits based on research done by the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
In the list are the leaders and CEOs – including President Donald Trump representing the US government – whose organizations contribute 71% of the world’s climate emissions. Their names – appearing before and more prominently than their businesses – are listed with the specific ways they’ve contributed to climate change.
These names should be discussed more often than the brand names themselves. This can lead to holding these individuals accountable for their actions.
Climate Culprits quotes Greta Thunberg, “Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we all have created. But that is not true. Because if everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame. And someone is to blame.”
Someone is always to blame. Let’s say who it is and stop using language that shields them.
Holding corporations accountable
Peter A. French argues for “holding corporations per se to account for what they do…”. As stated, corporations are primarily composed of their executives and the board of directors. In this case, corporations can serve as a stand-in for brands.
How can accountability become more commonplace?
Let’s start with language. Start using the name of executives and directors when you think, write, or speak about brands.
Consider also being more intentional with the financial support you provide to brands, in effect you are financially supporting said executives and directors. When a fashion brand produces unethical clothing and you buy it, you’re encouraging them to continue making environmentally and socially unsustainable business decisions. Fortunately, the reverse is true, too. When people at companies make good decisions, you have the power to support them.
Lastly, if you’re working in the fashion industry, consider how you can hold your peers and superiors accountable. Our time, energy, and skills support them. If you have the authority, try to choose ethical suppliers, design products that won’t be thrown away, and increase transparency around your business practices. If you don’t have the authority, speak up to those who do. External accountability goes hand in hand with internal accountability.
We have the capacity to change the status quo – aka what’s “normal” and acceptable – if we change our habits, so let’s start with how we talk about brands and remember, they aren’t faceless. There is always a “face behind a brand” so let’s use their name instead.
Sam Gugliemotto is a marketer at Eco-Stylist. He also works at a non-profit in Columbus, Ohio and studied Marketing and Accounting at Northeastern University. He’s a proud Midwesterner who likes the woods, coffee, and cropped pants with a striped t-shirt. You can follow on Instagram here.
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Cover image of a woman carrying a H&M shopping bag by Sara Sette.