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Can Fashion’s New Activists Make Sustainability Sexy?

Fashion’s activists and advocates are looking for ways to make sustainability as compelling as an ad for a new bag.
Amy Powney, Jameela Jamil and Amber Valletta engage with new campaign Fashion Our Future | Source: Instagram/@fashionourfuture
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — Actor Jameela Jamil is a feminist; model Amber Valletta an over-sharer; they want you to join them and choose a label of your own.

So goes the new tongue-in-cheek campaign launched by Mother of Pearl designer and sustainability advocate Amy Powney to raise awareness and drive action on fashion's environmental and social problems.

The concept is simple and light-hearted: pick one of nine pledges — commit to renting as a rent girl, buying vintage as an OAP (Old Age Purchaser), or you could “over share” images of the same outfits — post on social, and nominate someone else to follow suit. The campaign marks the launch of Fashion Our Future, a nonprofit platform Powney is aiming to build into a powerful advocacy tool for more sustainable fashion.

The tone is somewhere between Fashion Revolution and Man Repeller. The ambition is much grander: talk about the environmental and ethical issues that plague fashion’s supply chain in a way that makes ordinary people — who may find the issue off-putting, elitist or only engage with it in a superficial manner — listen.

“How do we get this quite complex, slightly boring message about supply chains out there?” Powney told BoF. “It’s complex, it’s gritty, it’s not sexy, so how do we get everyone to engage?”

While more and more brands and consumers are talking about the need for more responsible fashion, it's becoming less and less easy to decipher what that actually means. "Sustainable" collections are a dime a dozen these days, but so are overblown and confusing claims about ethical sourcing and reduced environmental impact. Greenwashing, or marketing something as sustainable when it's not, is a growing problem as more brands appeal to consumer demand for responsible fashion without putting in the work to actually manufacture responsibly.

Activists fear consumers, confronted with too much disinformation, will just tune out. However, the issues dogging the fashion industry don’t fit neatly into a sound bite. Driving change means educating both those inside and outside the industry about the issues and their potential solutions.

It's complex, it's gritty, it's not sexy, so how do we get everyone to engage?

Powney is among a wave of activists turning to more accessible approaches aimed at breaking through the noise. Their efforts range from star-studded Instagram campaigns to more sober efforts to publicise easy-to-digest data and events for shoppers and industry insiders who want to do their own research.

"People care, there just aren't yet enough stories connecting what is happening," said Maxine Bédat, who co-founded the sustainability-focused fashion company Zady before launching the New Standard Institute, a database and innovation hub focused on providing access to credible facts, research and reports on fashion's impact. "They need to be informed about what an ethical company actually is and what a sustainable company really is."

Designer and advocate Céline Semaan runs the Slow Factory, which works with brands on research and impact-focused sustainability initiatives. Alongside that work, she and her team run Study Hall, a series of free conferences to provide broader access to the information, with seminars on everything from landfills to life-cycle analyses.

While such initiatives aren’t new, social media means it’s never been easier to connect with a broad audience and swiftly build support behind a movement. Meanwhile the swift rise in prominence of climate campaigners like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion means the public is primed for engagement on topics related to environmental and social issues. And as more young brands build business models based around responsible manufacturing and sourcing, it’s becoming easier to point consumers in the direction of products that tick the box on sustainability and desirability.

Still, it's an uphill battle. Though consumer surveys regularly find that particularly young shoppers would prefer to buy from brands that are producing clothes in a socially and environmentally responsible way, style and price will still usually trump conscience at the point of purchase.

Fashion Revolution's "Who Made My Clothes" hashtag launched in 2015 and has been posted more than half a million times on Instagram, helping to up the pressure on brands to provide more information about the conditions for labourers in their supply chain. Real change has been tangible, but slow. The average score for brands assessed in the nonprofit's annual Fashion Transparency Index still comes in at just 21 percent, reflecting the deep levels of opacity that persist across much of the industry.

Greenwashing, or marketing something as sustainable when it's not, is a growing problem.

These campaigns are also competing for eyeballs with brands that have millions of dollars to spend on marketing. Even companies looking to improve their social and environmental impact are still devoting hefty resources to selling more of their product without addressing broader problems.

Brands “all come to us because they’re afraid of being called out for greenwashing, and we’re like, ‘Where is the money going?’ And it’s all marketing. So how the hell do you not want the public to think its greenwashing? That’s greenwashing guys!” Slow Factory’s Semaan said. “We have to stop funding fucking marketing.”

To compete, fashion’s activists and advocates are looking for ways to make sustainability as compelling as an ad for a new bag. That means finding ways to make tough, and sometimes depressing messages, engaging, exciting and accessible.

Model and environmentalist Arizona Muse has grappled with the problem first-hand. She has more than 250,000 followers on Instagram and will regularly garner thousands of likes on a single post, but when she started posting comments about the environment alongside more standard content, engagement would drop off.

“I decided I don’t care anymore what people think of my Instagram; I’m an environmentalist and that’s what I’m going to share,” Muse said. “I’m not trying to be a model or please my fashion crowd.”

Model Arizona Muse posing for #AWearNess | Source: Instagram/@arizona_muse

With more dedicated content, she said she's found strong interest and more rapid growth, and she's experimenting with different ways to engage her community. In January, she started posting pictures of her outfits, posing with both hands on her head, and giving them a score out of four. Clothes get a positive mark if they’re made out of more sustainable materials, have been well-loved or pre-loved or rented, and a negative point for virgin synthetic materials. She posted the first picture with the hashtag #AWearNess just over a month ago. Wider uptake has been slow, but her reach is still significant.

“I thought, what can I do that’s fun, and works with pictures, and tells people what they need to know,” Muse said. “I wanted it to be silly and lighthearted.”

Muse and her contemporaries acknowledge a hashtag won't change the world. But by making the issue more accessible and engaging, they hope to build wider support and awareness that can then help to drive change around topics governments and companies have failed to tackle.

Powney only started thinking about establishing Fashion Our Future after the UK government rejected proposals to toughen regulation on the industry last year.

For inspiration, she looked to Jamil’s I Weigh campaign, which has exploded from a single Instagram post in 2018 into a platform for activism and radical inclusivity. Initially an accidental viral movement in which people posted images of themselves stating how they weighed the value of their lives and not their weight on the scales, I Weigh is now a community with 1 million followers that has helped change global policies at Facebook and Instagram on how diet and detox products are presented to minors. It says it is currently campaigning for two bills to reach the Senate.

To build momentum beyond Fashion Our Future's initial nine pledges, Powney is looking to stage an ongoing series of events and partnerships. Among other things,  she's looking to host “conscious uncoupling” clothes swaps, and partner with celebrities and influencers to spotlight specific issues in a fun and engaging way.

Fashion Our Future launched late last week. By Monday evening, it had garnered a little over 2,000 followers.

“The goal would be to be completely international and huge,” Powney said. “If it doesn’t go off as we want, we can tweak it… it’s not like it has to be everything by the end of the week.”

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