Photography by Rita McNeill, words by Tavie Meier.
Before 2013, ethical fashion was a niche on the outskirts of the mainstream. Over the last five years, the ethical movement has transcended trends and shaken-off its handicraft stigma to reveal design-forward garments that appeal to a new, discerning generation of consumers. Millennials surpass baby boomers as the largest generation and are poised to enter their prime spending years. They're demanding corporate responsibility in return for their loyalty, so big-box retailers are scrambling to appear sustainable.
The final watershed moment for fast fashion occurred on 24 April 2013, when Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,138 workers because of cost-cutting measures directly attributed to cheap clothing. Fashion Revolution formed soon after, encouraging people to ask their favourite brands #whomademyclothes, which presses brands to respond with #imadeyourclothes. The first Fashion Revolution Day coincided with the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza Tragedy, and by 2016, it had expanded into an entire week.
2017 was Fashion Revolution’s most wide-reaching campaign to date, with their hashtags achieving 533 million impressions across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter in one week. If you were one of the 113,000 people who asked their favourite brands, “Who made my clothes?” last year, then your social media followers likely have an inkling of the human rights and environmental abuses pervasive in fast fashion.
However, sustainability advocacy requires year-round action, but few people have the time or opportunity to start a blog, work for an ethical fashion brand, or organise a clothes swap. Fortunately, there is one small action we can take to become “micro-influencers” among our friends and family.
Social proof is marketing jargon for recommendations. It’s centred around word-of-mouth marketing because people are more likely to purchase a product if a friend recommends it. In business, it sounds sinister, but in advocacy, it’s the difference between funnelling money into Amazon or a start-up label.
When a friend asks for recommendations, direct them to an ethical option:
I'm looking for documentaries on Netflix. Any suggestions?
The True Cost is one of the BEST documentaries I’ve seen. Full Stop. Eye-Opening and worth your time.
Requests don’t have to be open calls on Facebook. If someone asks for advice on bridesmaids dresses, an interview outfit, or reliable shoes, direct them to an ethical brand. If you need ideas, Good On You App serves as a directory for ethical brands, and the Ethical Consumer Report gives well-known brands “grades” for their sustainability practices.
There’s one catch to making this work: don’t initially mention it’s ethical.
Experts offer brands this advice by stressing the importance of creating design-focused pieces because consumer education can alienate people. The same can be applied if we're merely trying to recommend a bag or t-shirt to a friend.
An October 2017 article in The Independent discussed why behavioural evolution has made it near impossible to change consumer behaviour through education:
“Ethical campaigners, journalists and even some brands have argued that consumers would be able to overcome these subconscious forces of fun and excitement if they had more information about the ethical issues. But evidence shows that this does little to increase ethical behaviour. In fact, more information tends to reduce the influence of ethical issues due to the complexity of the issues.”
Humans can’t process too many burdens, so our natural reaction to receiving stressful information is to switch-off our minds. A 2013 Georgetown study, published just one week after the Rana Plaza tragedy, discovered we're willing to make excuses if we’re loyal to a brand or an item is on sale.
“Desirable products or products created by favourable brands seemingly get a free pass, as long as consumers have the mental resources to justify their purchase. Selfishly, however, consumers do not believe it is permissible for their friends to do the same.”
Luckily, despite hedonistic tendencies, humans err toward ethics if given the option. The study goes on to explain how we can help our friends make ethical choices by offering side-by-side comparisons, stating, “It may look bad that a company uses sweatshops, but [justifications for immoral practices] should decrease when competitors show they can provide an equivalent product without the moral cost.”
This week, many of us will attend local events, and not only get to know our favourite brands, but also discover new brands who can say #imadeyourclothes. The term “revolution” carries a lot of weight, and the enormity of the movement may feel overwhelming. Take the first step in your own community, among your inner circle. After all, when the crowds disperse, and the hashtags disappear for another year, it’s on us as ethical fashion advocates to continue its mission for the rest of the year.