Addressing the Negative Effects of the Fashion Industry, from the Inside

Posted on:5 June 2020


Category:English, Industry

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A Fairer Fashion Industry neon

It’s no secret that the fashion industry is among the most polluting and environmentally damaging in the world. Indeed, you’ll likely have seen the much-quoted statistics placing the fashion industry near the top of the list of environmental evils right now.

And as if the industry’s terrible production practices were not enough, there’s also the continuous push for us to consume ever more of these products. Usually for little real reason other than making brand share-holders even wealthier.

Obviously we need clothes to wear, but if the manufacturing methods used to make our clothes are so detrimental to the environment, then the very least we could do is make good use of these clothes once we’ve purchased them. Yet many are so poorly made that after only a few months they are of little use for anything other than cleaning rags.

All that damage caused, to perhaps only wear these badly-made garments a few times before consigning them to landfill. It’s nothing less than perverse.

But it’s not only a question of devastating environmental effects: this wasteful pattern of consumption has many negative consequences for people and society too.

garment workers

Firstly the fashion industry has a long history of displaying callous indifference to worker welfare. Many of the people tasked with making our clothes are forced to live and work in terrible conditions: with little or no rights; and often for pay that is barely enough to cover the most basic of life’s necessities.

Then there are the dubious advertising and promotional practices the industry frequently employs. These often undermine public self-image; thus decreasing satisfaction with our own lives, so as to encourage us to purchase yet more unnecessary goods in the vain hope of feeling better about ourselves.

Influencers, celebrities and marketers are hired to convince us that certain looks are the season’s “must haves.” Bombarded by such messages day after day, it can be easy to lose sight of who you are. And in a desire for greater self esteem and social acceptance, many of us duly purchase these heavily promoted items – even if in reality we might not even like them all that much.

In short, the fashion industry often coerces us into purchasing items we neither need nor even particularly want, and as a consequence causes enormous damage to people and the environment. Whether it’s the dreadful working conditions of many garment factories, the use of hazardous chemicals, the depletion of water supplies, or the promotion of impossible aesthetic ideals, the fashion industry clearly needs to change. And fast.

Realistically though, what can we as models and photographers do about this?

Perhaps more than you think.

Who is to Blame?

Fashion brands and manufacturers are clearly the main culprits here; after all it is not consumers, but manufacturers themselves, who decide how to run their own businesses. If a fashion brand chooses to produce clothing in factories that employ child labor or pollute rivers with terrifying chemicals, what has this got to do with us as consumers of these products? We certainly didn’t ask anyone to commit these atrocities on our behalf.

And yet as consumers of fashion we have a lot more power over this situation than we might at first believe. Not only power, but also responsibility.

After all, for years now we have been happily buying products made with zero concern for ethics and the environment – and most manufacturers have been only too happy to provide them in exchange for our money. But if we as consumers refuse to purchase unsustainably produced products, manufacturers will have no choice but to make their clothing more sustainable – or otherwise go out of business.

When put like this, it’s clear that we actually have a lot more say in our future than might at first appear.

Indeed, as the sustainable fashion blog A Rake’s Progress argues:

“[S]ustainable fashion is not simply something that manufacturers should make, but also something that we as consumers must do. Sustainable fashion is not solely a noun, but also a verb.”

Yet this act of “doing sustainable fashion” extends beyond merely the consumer and manufacturer, also including those of us lower down within the fashion industry itself.

How exactly?

Change from the Inside

As models, photographers, and other professionals on the creative fringes of the fashion industry, it can be easy to think of ourselves as somewhat removed from any responsibility to change the way our industry operates. After all, what power do we have to make our clients change their business methods?

Sure, as consumers of fashion, every one of us can make better choices about the kind of clothing we purchase (more on this in a minute). But ultimately models and photographers are just small and interchangeable parts in the gigantic fashion machine; individuals trying to earn a living, but with no more say as to how major fashion brands run their businesses than any other regular citizen. Indeed, when did a fashion brand ever consult a model about its business practices?

Not only do we often feel totally powerless, but sometimes we are even on the receiving end of the fashion industry’s unethical behavior. The appalling manufacturing conditions and labor abuses caused by the fashion industry’s insistence on rockbottom production costs have been well-documented. Yet not all of the fashion industry’s abuses take place in the “developing” world: it’s an open secret that the fashion industry runs on the unpaid labor of ambitious young models, stylists, photographers, and assistants everywhere from Paris to Tokyo.

Although patently not on the same level as horrific human rights abuses such as the Rana Plaza collapse, the fashion industry operates in such a way that younger creatives arguably occupy a position much closer to indentured garment workers than to the Creative Directors and CEOs who hold the real power.

The problem is, though, kick up a fuss and you’re out. In any case, with the industry’s eternally glamorous allure, there are always plenty of ambitious people happy to take your place. Often for free.

Yet collectively, as image creators, we actually have a lot of power. Whether or not we choose to use that power for good is a personal choice.

True, it might not be beneficial to your career to bite the hand that feeds: after all, the industry upon which we all depend for our livelihood doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to progressive politics.

But the fashion industry likes nothing better than to appear edgy and rebellious: radical posturing sells. So in actual fact attacking the fashion industry does not necessarily lead to exclusion from that industry. More likely it means that your message becomes appropriated by the fashion industry itself: and there’s nothing we’d like more than to see the fashion mainstream fully appropriate the message of sustainability.

The fashion industry is fickle and vain. It also likes to stay one step ahead. So when it senses an oncoming shift in public opinion, it reacts swiftly. Although we might do well to remain skeptical of their motives, luxury fashion group Kering has already committed to moving its brands (Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL etc.) towards sustainability. As the tide turns, others will have no choice but to follow suit – or die.

At this point we just need to make sure that the fashion industry’s commitment to sustainability is genuinely carried through, rather than merely serving as this season’s superficial window dressing. This means helping consumers to become fully informed and more demanding in their purchasing decisions: if consumer money insists upon sustainability, then this is what we’ll get.

It’s easy to look at the way people lived just twenty years ago and think it incredibly selfish: so much waste, so much bigotry and intolerance. But if we don’t share all of the same values as past generations, it’s not because we were somehow born superior in intellect or ethics to those who went before us.

Think about it: if the madness of single use plastic or the self-evidence of guaranteeing LGBT rights seem so obvious to most of us now, this is not because of anything done by our own generation. But actually because a few enlightened members of the previous generation campaigned hard for these causes – often at considerable personal cost.

Conversely, if other members of past generations were resistant to these changes, it’s often because society at large encouraged them to think in a certain way. We’re just lucky enough to have been born in a moment where the general thinking has moved on.

The point, then, is that things can and do change. Firstly because a few brave individuals push against the tide. Then, once their ideas gain greater acceptance, it becomes socially unacceptable to think or behave in any other way. At this point even the most resistant usually give in, or will suffer the consequences of social ostracization.

When it comes to the crimes of the fashion industry, the ball is already rolling. All that is needed are a few more people like ourselves – each with our own limited bit of power and influence as fashion industry insiders – to get behind this and make anything other than a fully sustainable fashion industry socially unacceptable. And therefore also economically unviable.

Wherever the money goes, you can be sure that the fashion industry will follow.

Practical Steps to a Better Fashion Industry

That’s all very well, but what can we – models, make-up artists, photographers, stylists, hair-stylists, producers, agents, bookers, location scouts, managers, casting agents, assistants – actually do in practice to change the fashion industry from the inside?

Let’s start with the simplest actions that everyone can take.

  • Firstly, try to stay informed

Is bamboo fabric good or bad? Is organic cotton better for the environment or not? Is buying vintage clothing really more sustainable?

We know, we know: with so much conflicting (and often entirely misleading) information in circulation, understanding what are and are not genuinely sustainable materials, fabrics, manufacturing processes etc. can seem like a truly daunting task.

Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s clearly not your fault if certain parties within the fashion industry don’t really want you to know what’s going on. We can’t all be experts, but if everyone tries to do what they can to stay reasonably well informed about matters of sustainability, then eventually the truth about most of these issues will come out.

You don’t need to become a total sustainable fashion geek, but keeping your ear to what’s happening on this side of things will permit you to make more educated choices when it comes to our next point: shopping sustainably.

  • Use your purchasing power to bring about change

The fast fashion approach of churning out cheap and poorly-made clothing in vast quantities as often as possible is not defensible on any level. Clothes that fall apart or are thrown away after being worn only a few times (as little as just 7 or 8 times, according to the EU report linked at the top of this article) are definitely not sustainable. On top of which, often the only way that garments can be produced at such a low cost is by using harmful and/or non-renewable materials and paying unfair wages to those who make them.

Don’t buy these clothes. Simple.

Instead, well-made clothes will last a lot longer before needing to be replaced. So even if they are still made by means of harmful manufacturing processes, the fact that a good quality item of clothing will likely last many more years than a fast fashion garment means that those harmful processes are being done less often.

In effect then, a single long-lasting item of clothing will consume many times less resources and release many times less harmful chemicals into the environment than all the bad quality products required to clothe a person over the same period of time. While the goal should of course be to use only totally renewable resources, and release precisely zero harmful chemicals into the environment, purchasing well made products is already a significant improvement over buying fast fashion items.

Better still, though, is to only purchase well-made items that do not consume non-renewable materials and do not release any harmful chemicals into the environment at all. Look for organic cotton over the conventional variety; purchase linen and hemp (which require much less water and chemicals than most other fibers); insist upon “unmulesed” wool only; and if you absolutely must go with synthetics, wear recycled nylon and polyester.

Finally, bear in mind that the most sustainable consumer choice is just not to buy anything at all. Of course, we all need clothes of some description. And there’s no reason why those clothes shouldn’t be stylish. But we almost certainly don’t need anywhere near as many clothes as many of us seem to think we do.

Quality not quantity is what counts. If you’re creative, you’ll be able to put together almost endless combinations from just a handful of good items. Go for solid essentials, a few more unique and fun pieces, and some versatile accessories. And buy vintage whenever you can: not only does buying used clothing not consume any extra resources, but older clothes are often better made than those manufactured today.

  • Use your influence to bring the message to others

As a model, you have public visibility. Anything you wear, even in your own time and at your own expense, benefits from your public seal of approval. By wearing clothing from brands that engage in unsustainable practices, you give those brands and their harmful products legitimacy. They don’t deserve your support. Instead try to become a role model in the way that you consume. Inspiring others to become better consumers too.

Sure, most models and photographers don’t make huge amounts of money at the start of their careers, so we’re often on a very tight budget. But by purchasing vintage, and buying only good quality new items that will last for a long time, it’s entirely possible to be stylish on a budget – without going anywhere near destructive fast fashion territory.

Fashion is about appearances. And at this moment in history the appearances which count the most are those that are seen online. But for all we know, the most stylish fashion influencers may spend most of their lives sitting at home in a moth-eaten old overcoat and threadbare underwear. What matters is that they – and you – look great online.

But it’s not necessary to actually own all the outfits we upload to Instagram. Apparently some people have already taken to purchasing items just to shoot selfies in them; immediately sending them back to the retailer for a refund once they’ve got their content uploaded.

Perhaps there’s a more ethical way of doing something similar? Borrowing clothes from friends? Paying a stylist to put together outfits for a shoot specifically to produce social media content?

Clothes lending libraries already exist in many major cities. If it really matters to you, there are numerous ways that you could avoid ever having to upload photos of yourself wearing the same outfit twice.

What’s more, as a model or a photographer, you have a fantastic platform for pushing a critique of rampant consumerism and proposing more radical ideas about sustainability to a broader audience.

Societal change is always a drip, drip effect. First you read something about it here; then you see something there. Eventually it’s everywhere and you can’t get away from it. Now you begin to alter your way of living accordingly. Others see what you’ve done, and they do it too. Before you know it, something that seemed almost impossible just a few years ago has become the norm.

But if the fashion and photography worlds don’t work together to make the general public more aware of the gravity of this situation, the message will take a lot longer to filter through. And by then it may be too late.

While it’s hard to consider turning down a lucrative job – particularly early on in your career when income is likely to be very tight – do try to be selective about the clients you work for. And if you really can’t say no to the money from a particularly nasty fast fashion client; well sure, take it, and then use some of those funds to offset the negative effects by getting a more constructive message out there via your own projects.

As a model, and particularly as a photographer, you have more opportunities than most people to add to the drip effect; to help bring about this much-needed change. Through creative editorial shoots, personal work, tests, social media content, and even exhibitions, you can draw attention to these issues, broadcasting the message to a much wider audience.

We’re not going to pretend to be at the avant-garde here: if we’ve become aware of the seriousness of the problems caused by the fashion industry it’s because others – true pioneers – brought the matter to our attention. We’re just doing our part by passing on that message.

Now it’s your turn.

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