Fashion and Social Justice
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
We should look at the fashion industry as an opportunity for all. This industry has the power and the resources to make change happen and allow for people to live fairly and healthy, to value people over profit. When I think about all the ways I can add new content into my curriculum, my mind immediately thinks about well-being and the human focus on everything. The fashion industry can change in a few areas, and by introducing some of these to students can bring awareness. As much as it is important for me to understand all the levels of the business and how it can cater towards well-being, I can only focus on what I have the power to change. Since authenticity and storytelling is at the forefront of what I do, I tend to find the people and organizations that are making change happen, while also being aware of the well-being of all humans. There are fashion design schools that target important issues, and some amazing scholars who are shaping the next generation of fashion professionals. I propose that if all students, not just those in fashion design can at least think about a few more issues intuitively about their field of study and how they can relate to fashion, we can come up with some fantastic outcomes. Some of these schools include Pennsylvania State University with the Center for Sustainability, The University of Texas at Austin whose mission is to 'lead the study and practice of sustainable development in Texas, the nation and the world through complementary programs of research, education and community outreach.' Washington State University ha an Institute of Sustainable Design while London, Denmark, and Sweden also have established centers.
Humans enjoy learning when it is something they are interested and passionate about, so if we as teachers introduce the topic, you can bet someone will take note. I allow students to create projects and research some controversial topics, hoping they can find some solutions that can make a difference. Fashion is a root where many things grow from. Let's consider fashion as a broad social phenomenon that appeals to many areas.
"Fashion is a specific form of social change, independent of any particular object; it is first and foremost a social mechanism characterized by a particularly brief time span and by more or less fanciful shifts that enable it to affect quite diverse spheres of collective life."- Philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy
A healthy and productive future is a global society where the origin of the fabric of our clothes, how we market those clothes, and the quality and life of the person making those clothes, matter. For the good and health of our well-being, those who have forced employees to work for low wages in all countries, even America, have given power to only a select few and we have dealt with increasing costs in every aspect of life. How do we sustain even just the simple act of living anymore? We can go as far as looking at the pressure the industry places on its employees as well. FashionRevolution.org fights for this cause everyday. "We campaign for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry. We do this through research, education, collaboration, mobilisation and advocacy." Their activism and resources allow us to take part in some small way however we are able.
Mental health issues arise when we are pressured into producing on a constant basis. How can designers continue a sustained and healthy life when they constantly need to create? When our identity is lost because of job loss in a global crisis, we all suffer. When our earth is changing course because we have put so much pressure on and natural resources that are slowly diminishing, our environment suffers. Where and how are we trying to solve the issues and make sure we have a bright future is when each individual involved considers their role in the fight to do their part. As educators, we must start to consider how our impact can be utilized for this greater good. I am inspired by Frances Corners book Why Fashion Matters and just as she touches on her 101 thoughts on it, I have outlined here a few of my own thoughts on fashion and wellness, and how we can introduce it in our curriculum.
It is hard to even know where to begin on this one, so I will look at it from the perspective of marketing and retail since that is where a lot of my courses stem from. Transparency is by far the easiest and quickest way to start educating your customers so that the complex process is understandable. It is when a company must disclose information relating to material sources, manufacturers and other suppliers so that there is an accurate picture of the ethical and environmental impact of their product. Silence is not a term I take lightly, and it could also be said that if a brand speaks up about what they are doing right, we love them. What happens when they don't speak up at all? We question it and make the assumption that they are not using best practices for people and the planet. I have written about Patagonia before, because they tell a story so effectively while fighting for the environment. Their products exist so that we can enjoy the environment and the resources needed to produce the clothing we wear. Every sport category they design for offers a Patagonia community and activists who share in their love for activity and the environment. To stay true to each piece of communication, they highlight anything that protects the places we live, play and operate. Their marketing campaigns are honest, and provocative. While many fashion brands and other businesses have stepped up their game with the fight for environmental sustainability, there are some that still need help. This is a huge topic, but if we start allowing students to develop the skills to enter and care for fashion in a sustainable way, our future planet will be better off.
Storytelling for me is where a brand can shine. For smaller brands that don't have the capability like a Patagonia, places like Provenance can help. It is an organization that helps you create a connection to shoppers and build a story behind your product so that you can create a digital relationship built on purpose. Big key words for 2020 there. Digital. Purpose. Relationship. Connection. From their website "Provenance empowers brands to make the sourcing and impact behind their products transparent. We exist to enable citizens to access and trust in business sustainability efforts beyond today’s marketing hype."
One of my favorite books, The Sustainable Fashion Handbook by Sandy Black is something I
use a lot in my classes. Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion wrote a piece that has inspired me to research our relationship with garments and product consumption. "The democratization of fashion has signaled a hugely significant upward shift in our consumption levels. Such democratization demonstrates how fashion can express both the individual and society’s ideas, but what hasn't been sufficiently recognized is that this is made possible through the physical resources of both people and planet. Do we restate the problem, or raise consumer expectations to change the conversation." I am aware that sustainability is a complex subject with many layers, I also know that it is one of the most overused terms in fashion and lifestyle marketing right now. We can look at sustainability marketing in a way we haven’t much before, which is the health and livelihood of our understanding on what it can do for our own life and well-being. Research can focus on how marketing, design and other business functions work together, and bring value via the benefits of people, communities and the environment affected by this industry. We need to flip the sustainability narrative to urgent, and look at the value we have for ourselves, and how it might allow us to live a healthier and happier life. Can we recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need that might change the way we view our consumption levels? Isn’t the purpose of marketing to encourage emotional engagement within ourselves so that we find the value of our purchases?
Wearable Tech will be a term we will start to see more often in the future. We need to think of technology and fashion as a gateway to help the everyday consumer of clothing feel good, look good, and get help if they need it. This could be mentally, physically or even protective. With the advancements in technology and health care today, I can see a future where someone could quite possibly send a message of hope through the clothes they wear. I have seen so many advancements in this type of design for clothing, and a great example of this is from the exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled, Wired To Wear. On display are wearable devices to keep you healthy from John Rogers, PhD who wanted to make flexible consumer products when his work was discovered by a group of doctors, they recommended he make medical sensors instead. There are even wearables in sport to improve speed, endurance and accuracy, with "sensors evaluating your performance in real-time with connected software to tailor in depth training plans to meet your body's needs." Specially designed helmets and shirts to prevent concussions and scare away potential threats to your body.
Keeping your mind safe is just as important as protecting your body with clothing. I am committed in this research and how the future looks for people facing this. It has increased, and the youth are so much more vulnerable than every before. Designers and other professionals in the fashion industry are under increasing pressure. Creativity is forced, and the meaning gets lost which then tells the consumer and raises their expectations and that of the people who want to make money. We all want and need money to survive and have nicer things. In Frances Corner's book Fashion Matters, she considers how the fashion cycle has accelerated the speed for more collections, thus placing pressure on designers to produce more. One great quote she mentioned came from Rei Kawakubo, in an interview with Women's Wear Daily. 'The motivation has always been to create something new, something that didn't exist before. The more experience I have and the more clothes I make, the more difficult it becomes to make something new. Once I've made something, I don't want to do it again, so the breadth of possibility is becoming smaller.' "The fashion industry needs to be careful about how it cultivates, nurtures and sustains creative talent; stretching an individuals creativity beyond what is humanly possible risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg."
In 2019, The Business of Fashion published an article discussing people in the industry who suffer from mental health in their work environment. In the US, 71 percent of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Fashion is a notoriously difficult industry to break into, and working long hours for little pay is widely seen as the price of admission. Junior employees often tolerate these conditions just to be part of the scene, outwardly living glamorous lives while enduring stress, overwork and economic instability. The hectic schedule and competitive environment can create a toxic workplace culture, stoking fear among employees over the possibility of losing their jobs if they speak out about their mental health. This fear pervades the industry across all vocations: designers, models and public relations associates alike." Not only do designers have to maintain a constant flow of creative process, but marketing and editorial teams also have to continue a stream of content.
We could look at our current pandemic and see a brighter side towards a fashion calendar that could reduce the amount of clothing and collections made each year. Designers and professionals are beginning to speak up about how the pressure of the industry has affected their well-being. I will still fight for a way to help students and professionals deal with this emotional barrier of making sure to stand for what they believe in, no matter how much they want to enter the field. In the same article from BOF, it states, "As Gen-Z enters the workforce, the culture may start to shift. This generation, now aged approximately between 15 and 21, is more likely than older generations to report their mental health concerns, according to a 2019 survey from the American Psychological Association. Twenty-seven percent of Gen-Z respondents reported their mental health as fair or poor, compared with 15 percent of Millennials and 13 percent of Gen Xers. Something to be hopeful for no doubt.
Women's rights in the fashion industry to achieve fulfillment in their life with being able to hold positions and gain momentum and leadership in the fashion industry. Style is radical when you put it into action. An article in The Fashion Law described this movement and where the law plays a role. The author of Spare Me Your Feminist Fashion and Show Me Your Employment Contracts writes: "Evening bags that read “Pussy Power” hit the runway during one of the first big-name womenswear shows of the Fall/Winter 2018 season. “New York fashion shows to highlight #MeToo movement,” read a headline from Reuters. Right around the same time, Rebecca Minkoff released, in lieu of a fashion show, a collection of feminist-focused garments; the release was rather timed perfectly with the 2018 Women’s March. And not to be forgotten: the various feminist-inspired statement tees that Dior has been trotting down the runway in recent seasons. The brand’s $800 “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt comes to mind."
"These might be noteworthy efforts in raising awareness about gender equality, but in many ways, they are not enough. If the fashion industry is truly serious about change (and not merely relying on women’s rights and gender equality/empowerment as the latest hot-selling trend, as many appear to be doing), there are concrete things it can do. For one thing, they could work to ensure that women that are doing the same jobs as men and that maintain the same general level of experience as those men are paid equally to their male counterparts. (In furtherance of this effort, brands should find ways to address that fact that in most workplaces, salary is generally treated as an off-limits topic, something that serves as a hinder equality/advancement, particularly for women). Beyond that, brands can eradicate mandatory arbitration clauses for sexual harassment and discrimination claims from all employment contracts. Tangible action on these two fronts, which would occur on paper and for the most part, behind-the-scenes, is not nearly as flashy or Instagrammable (and thus, marketable and monetizable) as, say, a “Girl Power” t-shirt or a #MeToo-themed runway show. However, taking steps to ensure that women are not discriminated against in terms of pay and/or promotions (as Nike, Italian design house Etro, and i-D, Vice, and Garage magazine publisher Vice, for instance, have allegedly done for quite some time according to recent lawsuits), and to safeguard their right to have access to the legal system so that harassment and discrimination claims may be adjudicated in a public forum, are much more meaningful endeavors than over-priced designer wares."
"Putting aside (just for now) the rampant gender-based inequality in pay and promotional standards, and the striking inequality at the helm of major houses, in the C-suite, and on executive and advisory boards that is prevalent in fashion, consider an immensely important but rarely-discussed issue that should be at the center of fashion’s efforts to address the role of women in the industry: how most companies handle women’s claims of sexual harassment and discrimination."
Diversity and Inclusion
There are systems and policies in place in this context that need change, and fast. The Black Lives Matter movement struck the nation and the world, placing critical views on how to address racism in America. This is not only about making sure to uphold equal rights, but to have a strategy in place that will incorporate these values. This can start by implementing proper historical literature in schools so that we teach students how they can fight for justice. We can also force businesses to hire individuals who have first hand experience and a diverse voice that understands how to interpret systems, communities and cultures to bring about positive change. I often feel a lot of marketing and advertising professionals do not speak up or allow things to go unnoticed. Bringing this to the forefront of education could be a great step and teachers who are willing and able to weave it into their curriculum will win.
Our fashion studies department put together a conference last fall about diversity and social justice within fashion featuring two amazing guest speakers. One of the guests, Kimberly Jenkins, is the creator of the "Fashion and Race" project, and gave a presentation about her course and her research. Much of her research has gone into a database she created that offers tools and resources to expand the diverse narrative of fashion as it relates to all race. She was interviewed in 2018 on Fashionista about cultural appropriation in fashion in the classroom. "A hot topic that I know I must address in my class is cultural appropriation. I agree with scholar Minh-Ha Pham that it's time to retire the term (unless you are a fashion law professional), but I still find it useful as an entry point into talking about style, ownership and power sharing. I don't think it's useful to say that no one should ever wear anything that is not native to their identity or upbringing, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation about what something means and why. Paradoxically, as the world has become smaller and more connected, we have in many ways become more tribal and isolated. We build up walls and plug our ears and that's what I see happening in fashion when the personal becomes political."
We can all make an impact within diversity and inclusion by creating space for it in our lives, even as simple as the purchases we make. Our economic system is racist by design, and to get a clearer picture of this as it relates to our social environment and how the market operates, a webinar from the Fair Trade Coalition had some insightful speakers regarding the industry from the perspective of inclusion. Jocelyn Leitzinger, a professor of management from University of Illinois at Chicago, gives a very informational lecture on the problems we are facing regarding the economic, political and social systems we are currently in. The discussion on this webinar also included Manpreet Kalra of New York Fair Trade Coalition, Jasmine French of Fair Trade LA, and was moderated by Zachary Rochester of Iowa City Fair Trade Coalition.
For the past year I have been following the work of Ava Duvernay quite closely. She is a writer, director and producer of some phenomenal pieces on this subject and is continuing to tell some provocative stories that can really capture your attention and give you an insight into the injustice that has been happening for so many years.
Corporate Social Responsibility, Labor Laws
In the fashion industry, CSR is still in the beginning stages and has a lot of work to do in how workers are treated, and the environment they work in. Dr. Gayathri Banavara, a colleague of mine who recently received a doctorate in Education in Organizational Leadership questions how apparel industry managers describe the operationalization of corporate social responsibility within their organizations. In one of her preliminary studies, Innovative Practices In Corporate Social Responsibility: A Narrative Study Exploring How Apparel Industry Managers Describe The Operational Practices Associated With Corporate Social Responsibility Within Their Organizations she writes, "The apparel industry is known to focus on profit, globalization and technology, making it easy for them to not be as transparent. Even though we think that the retailers and buyers are responsible, where consumers will shop based on their transparency levels, it really is up to the manufacturer to provide CSR within their factories. The more we hold them accountable, the more they will have to comply or they will not gain the business."
Her motivation for this research was due to the building in Bangladesh that housed a manufacturing facility for apparel goods which collapsed in April of 2013. She states in one of her studies, "The response of the western retail industry to the disaster had been superficial. The ultimate goal has been to shield retailers from consumer wrath and maintain profits and marketshare. Many times,it was considered “not our problem” if there were reports that manufacturing partners had violated labor laws. The norm was the“tick-box”system, in which retailers made sure the right boxes were marked but did not monitor the operational practices of their supply chain partners. As organizations are apart of the society we live in, it also affects the quality of the social setting in which they operate. Supply chain practices are the major source of labor rights violations in the garment industry. The pressure for obtaining increasing number of customers and orders results in many companies in Bangladesh ignoring labor rights and protection. There has been progress but there is a lot more needed."
"Participants in the study were in-sync about the future of CSR in the apparel industry while realizing that there would always be a need for improvement. Their motivations for being committed to CSR varied from it being the right thing to do, to it ranking high as an organizational goal, to the need to meet consumer requirements and demands. The participants said they recognized the necessity for CSR in the industry knew that implementation and operationalization would continue evolving with the practices increasingly becoming more important as organizational goals."
The messages being sent from the fashion industry need to be diverse and positive, as it has been blamed for undermining women's self-esteem. When editorial and catwalk shows feature a small portion of women in society, we can't help but wonder why the industry focuses on the myth that this is beauty, then turn around and create product so they can feel better. In the book, Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach the author writes, "female identity was inextricably linked to body image leading to conditions such as anorexia and bulimia, body hatred was a peculiarly Western export, fueled by the media's essentially misogynist perceptions of female beauty. To this day, the limited representation of women in mainstream media puts pressure on all women to conform to one standard of beauty regardless of their age, body type or skin color. When inevitably the vast majority of us fall short, we feel inadequate, with potentially destructive consequences."
Advertising to Youth
In Why Fashion Matters by Frances Corner, "Direct spending by teenagers and children has tripled since 1990. As fashion and popular culture have become synonymous, younger consumers are being exposed to fashion at a younger and younger age. Advertising campaigns directed at children put enormous pressure on parents who have neither the money nor the desire to dress children in this way. She goes on to ask, how in our commercial, image-driven world can we tread a line between great children's clothes that are attractive, well made and beautifully designed without exploiting children and encouraging an unhealthy focus on the superficial, body image and price tag? Children are far more susceptible to outside influences than adults yet all to often fashion campaigns for children are selling the same dreams that make adults feel inadequate, not empowered." The idealized and constructed images of children and women need to have a more positive and uplifting message that focuses on diversity, connection and opportunity. Beauty is much more diverse and thoughtful now, so let's make sure we communicate that.