Image / @ajabarber
If a brand aligns to a social cause, it cannot just be for show, writes Anny Ma in this frank op-ed.
Fashion has a wide sphere of influence that permeates many sectors. Daily wardrobe choices can tell others what an individual believes, enjoys, or feels. It’s easy to dismiss fashion as vapid, despite it being an inherently political institution. But the fashion industry does itself no favours in trying to dispel this widely-held belief.
The positioning of high fashion as aspirational and barely attainable is just one of the ways fashion reinforces societal class structures. Dipping in and out of social classes is an industry hobby, often co-opting working class aesthetics and repackaging them as revolutionary or yes, ‘aspirational’. Self-awareness is something fashion often leaves to the working class, layering thick strands of irony into textiles instead.
Despite being built on appearance, the industry simply cannot hold a mirror up to itself. Instead, corporate social responsibility teams – which often fall under marketing – instruct brands to build awareness days into their product and social media plans, exhaling a sigh of gratitude that their social good has been fulfilled for the year.
Ending world hunger by 2030 would cost the world $330 million. The annual revenue the global fashion industry generated? $2.5 trillion, pre-pandemic. Fashion’s ability to accrue and pursue wealth by exploiting others is only possible because of the capitalist system that assigns and withholds power.
Power is something which can be used for change, or harm. Money is power, and the fashion industry is draped in it.
The fashion and charity sectors have the resources and access to create systemic change, but the seasonal endeavours remain shallow and lacking in both strategy and sacrifice. The fashion industry is built on white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial violence, and the charity sector is too.
In charity and anti-racism, the term ‘white saviour’ describes the way help is handed down by the powerful. This ‘help’ seems generous, but is conditional. It is the help powerful groups want to give, not the help the community has asked for. White saviourism infantilises communities, believing that the powerful know what the ‘poor and unfortunate’ need, regardless of lacking any relevant experience or expertise. It is offering a handout, rather than a hand up.
The myth that wealth and power is the result of brains and hard work, as opposed to being inherited or linked to privilege, is the root of white saviourism. It also overlooks that the reason these communities are in these situations is often because the powerful have overexploited them.
In international development, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are being increasingly investigated for causing further harm in the over-exploited nations they visit, practicing white saviourism, assaulting civilians or inappropriately using funding. Think UN, World Vision, Oxfam, UNICEF – all major players whose corruption and abuse has been publicised.
Comic Relief announced they would stop sending white British celebrities to African countries to create promotional films for Red Nose Day. Their anti-poverty work has always centred on Africa (which the sector usually treats as a country not a continent), but in 2020 directly funded organisations in the UK addressing racial inequalities for the first time - supporting the Black, Asian, and other minoritised ethnicities who had been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
Like Comic Relief, many in the charity sector have finally retired the inappropriate and exploitative ‘poverty porn’ or ‘trauma porn’, where photography and stories of people experiencing hardship are shared to elicit emotion or funds.
We know that people experience homelessness, we know that period poverty exists, we know that there are children who can only eat once a day. We know that suffering exists, and we don’t need evidence documenting it - especially when the saviour jumps in and art directs the photo too.
It is entirely irresponsible to capture somebody at a low point in life to build an individual or company’s positive reputation. Regardless of what consent is given or the intentions behind it, these images are dehumanising, and strip people of their dignity. If consent is asked for, it is unlikely they would feel comfortable saying no because of the expectation to just ‘be grateful’, and the power dynamics between the people needing and offering help.
How can a sector which is built on ‘good intentions’ cause so much harm? With the same ease that the fashion industry - designed to represent joy, empowerment, and self-expression - pays the 75 million garment workers of the world as little as 15c an hour.
Both the fashion and charity industries, and those with proximity to them, need to stop and consider whether good deeds would be done if they came with a non-disclosure agreement, or weren’t able to market it.
It seems very generous to donate a portion of a product - usually the same percentage as tax - to a charitable cause. However, it is the equivalent of adding a heavily-sequinned tulle overlay to a slip dress: an illogical yet intentional act that just distracts from poor structural integrity.
Telling customers that the brand will do good if the customers purchase something is the customer donating, not the brand. There is space for one name on a tax write-off, and it won’t fit a list of customers.
Aja Barber, sustainability consultant and author of upcoming book Consumed: On colonialism, climate change, consumerism & the need for collective change says: “I see a lot of people getting into the work that I do, and I knew when I set out to write my book that I should be giving back, because those who have told their stories to me should be the benefactors of financial redistribution. I chose to donate a sizeable amount of my advance to the people exploited in the fashion industry. Redistribution of money needs to happen for us to actually change the system, and it shouldn't be dependent upon profit margins. I gave those donations before my book even hit the shelves. It came out of my advance. Profit percentage is basing your philanthropy on your success and that’s NOT how that should work.”
If a brand can only afford “profit percentage” - not the retail price - from a product made specifically to fundraise, they should be undertaking an operations and financial audit, not attempting philanthropy.
While the product does involve designing and marketing hours, the brand is making very little sacrifice. And change comes when the powerful sacrifice.
Saviourism means there is no space for the people with the experience and expertise to design the solutions that will help them, rather they are forced to express gratitude for the bare minimum.
Fundraisers know how to fundraise in the same way designers know how to design - they know their target audience, and recycle what works for them. You could use ‘collaboration’ to describe putting a logo or fundraising message on an accessory, but it is better described as laziness. Collaboration is when all at the table have equal voice, and are empowered to use their strengths while respecting everybody else’s.
Both the fashion and charity industries are comfortable resting on tired tropes and ideas. Complacency in these sectors is a sign of privilege, because it means the decision makers will be unaffected by the decisions they make.
Instead of constantly patching new holes in poorly constructed garments, it is a very realistic alternative to create large-scale change that blocks companies and people profiting from products and systems designed to fail, or cause harm.
The existence of the non-profit industrial complex clearly signposts where society has failed. It is often said that the goal of the charity sector is to work itself into redundancy. Like abolition, this can be difficult for some to comprehend. A concerted effort to cut a new pattern will produce a system built on equity and community. This requires a collective effort - it is not the charity sector’s sole responsibility to act as the caregiver, tutor, and cleaner for society.
Fashion’s obsession with the word “feminist” has provided another opportunity for mockery, a shameless and unintentional joke that upholds the system under the guise of change. In 2018, the word “feminist” appeared in brands’ digital presence 5 times more than in previous years. This tokenistic behaviour treats social change as an optional accessory rather than a wardrobe staple.
As the industry increasingly sells feminism, it doesn’t personally buy it.
80 percent of the world’s garment workers are women, in a sector plagued by the gender wage gap, sexual assault, gender-based violence. To support families they rarely see, the women are working 10-16 hour days, six days a week. Being paid is a luxury for these workers, with forced labour and child labour in garment production and textile harvesting both far more common than a living wage.
Being on the ‘glamorous’ side of the industry doesn’t protect women from violence either, it just means the abuse is happening in countries with slightly more workers’ rights, by people with titles like photographer, creative director, agent and so on.
Feminism understands that power imbalance exists, and takes action to create equity. Feminism or ‘body positivity’ don’t exist if it is at somebody else’s expense. How is any of this remotely feminist?
If a brand aligns to a social cause, it cannot just be for show. It must be done thoughtfully, and the criteria should prioritise who needs the most help, not who complements the brand identity.
When labels embark on sustainability, they audit their operations to see where eco-friendly change can be made. Designers are aware of the reputational damage that comes from outwardly preaching sustainability, while not practicing it internally. Courier bags become compostable, swing tags connect with cotton instead of plastic, and materials are sourced as locally as possible.
But this attitude gets lost in translation when it concerns social impact.
Fashion is selective in aligning with causes: they need to be palatable, have wide relatability, evoke positivity, and be non-confrontational or political.
Aja notes that “Brands choose social issues to support based on what large groups of people across backgrounds are talking about on social media. It has to be a cause they can dip their oar into, without actually moving the dial at all”.
This white saviourism prioritises the powerful party’s interests over the genuine need, erasing the possibility for substantive work to be done, relationships to be built, or communities to trust they will receive ongoing support.
“Awareness is better than doing nothing, be grateful!” is a line as tired as shoulder caping a blazer, and one that fills me with equal rage.
No progress is made if the action commodifies and diminishes the cause. On a social change scale, a neutral position is not pausing, it is sliding backwards.
Campaigns must be intentional and strategic, rather than lazy and tokenistic. As I’ve written for Ensemble before, being an activist is about using the power and access you have, to foster change.
Small-medium brands are worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, while large-scale international labels are valued in millions. Yet the company has no budget for cultural competency or anti-oppression training or community support? Peculiar.
Fashion considers itself a home of brilliant world-changing minds, who predict decades of global style consciousness, and turn plastic bags into faux leather. But when asked for accountability, they slip on a mask of feigned innocence.
“Fashion is interesting. On the outskirts, the industry will always try to remain apolitical, even though fashion is very political. But on the inside, why is it so hard to regulate the industry and its harmful systems? That’s political too,” comments Aja.
Fashion does not get to excuse itself by pretending it is just an industry of creatives unaffected by and detached from politics and social issues. Like fishtail hem dresses, nobody is buying it anymore.
Net worth may not represent dollars that can be immediately cashed out, but it does represent power. It lets designers join steering committees on import and export tax, represent countries in international political arenas, advise on resuscitating local garment industries, form personal relationships with politicians, and use the brand name as bargaining leverage - whether that’s to influence interns to work for free, stores to stock their product, or to expect a premium table in a busy restaurant without a booking.
Brands conveniently forget this power when it comes to social good. Their ability to petition and lobby bureaucratic structures is suddenly misplaced, and they lose their voice. Trading off an organisation or cause’s feelgood currency is a transparent marketing strategy, and it is this lack of authenticity which induces eye rolls.
Instead of selling stuff, it is entirely realistic to be an inclusive brand that supports communities by embedding the values in operations and governance.
When a brand decides to do a campaign for Pride and support the LGBTQIA+ community, it receives very loud applause for “doing something” and “using your platform”, while letting their customers feel fashionably socially conscious.
While a rainbow flag may cause a smile, it does nothing to create material support or improve quality of life. 74 percent of trans and non-binary folk in NZ did not disclose their gender identity in the workplace because of fear of discrimination. A tokenistic rainbow in a shop display or logo to “raise awareness” is just so far below an acceptable level of support.
The queer community is subject to daily violence that those with cisgender (identifying with the gender assigned at birth) and heterosexual privilege are exempt from. We don’t face higher rates of experiencing homelessness, suicidal thoughts, assault, unemployment, persecution, lower life expectancy, being misgendered, or being completely illegal in certain countries. This violence is the reality for queer folk all over the world.
Is flying a premium-priced rainbow flag the start and end of the brand’s activism? Are they delivering LGBTQIA+ inclusivity training for staff to create a safe workplace? Are they creating a code of conduct all suppliers must adhere to that includes being anti-discrimination? Are they developing employment paths for rainbow staff to gain work experience or meaningful employment?
Are they influencing their networks to campaign on banning conversion therapy? Are they doing the bare minimum to ban discriminatory language? Are they regularly donating to rainbow causes and communities? Are they supporting community wardrobes like the one at Rainbow Youth? Are they funding scholarships for queer students pursuing fashion? Are clothing ranges still gendered? Does protocol exist for dealing with clients who express harmful views in store?
These are but a few of the vast range of actions that can be taken to create progress for rainbow rights, but they unfortunately do not convert to press coverage. “Label has all staff include pronouns in email signatures” just isn’t that juicy of a press story, unfortunately.
Sale-based donations have never been good enough, and are even less so after millions were donated by fashion conglomerates after Notre Dame was licked by a few flames.
If the world stopped producing new clothes today, humanity would still never run out of clothes, and charity tees would forever be found in second-hand shops.
When a new garment is made in the pursuit of ethics, it ignores that it is unethical to continue to create waste, when fashion is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions - more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Creating a fundraising T-shirt can be turned around in hours without any senior input. It truly lacks creativity, but capitalism breeds innovation, apparently.
“A fast fashion brand making a T-shirt to help the climate when its business is the reason for this mess is a real snake eating its own tail," says Aja. The numbers are part of the reason why we’re in this ecological disaster. In general, the fashion industry has to think a lot bigger than creating a T-shirt to solve problems."
Committing to a cause needs to be more than just a seasonal trend, it needs to be explicit to the business model.
There are many labels who have social impact baked into their existence, whether that’s through regularly donating and supporting; creating job and training opportunities for under-represented communities; operating ‘buy one, give one’ models; volunteering with and mentoring support organisations; creating affirmative action programmes; having inclusion targets for suppliers and staff; regularly gifting non-purchasable products to organisations; paid consultancy with campaign leaders that includes the resources and power to lead the brand’s action in this area.
It is not hard to be a business that does good. The push for the local garment industry is just one example of that. It is hard to pretend to do good, or to force caring about a cause. If you must force it, just don’t do it.
The most impactful social organising and action comes from an individual’s self-interest and relatability to the cause. If a designer’s interest is rescue dogs, then put all efforts into rescue dogs, and partner with the grassroots kennels and rescuers in the area. The large organisations have money - it is the smaller ones who need the resource and support.
The support is not just sharing a black square, it is something tangible. Raising awareness is positive, but the levels and ways of raising awareness directly link to position and power. Brands must have dialogues and be educated about what they are sharing, and be able to hold discussions with their customers about the cause and why. They should be able to create learning moments with their audience, and if they can’t - they simply aren’t qualified to be ‘raising awareness’ or aligning to it.
Brands should follow up their charitable cause announcements with a manifesto for internal changes they will be making in line with the ethics of that issue, and regularly update their audience on how those changes on the learning journey are going.
Brands can share their learning resources, pay activists and voices to host conversations or guest blogs, or even start a book club and stock those books in store.
The power of a platform comes with responsibility, and that is not a debate topic. Human rights are not ‘political’, they are rights afforded by the mere fact of existing. If customers are lost for their preference of disrespecting human rights, why are brands interested in being worn by bigots who likely earned their money through ill-treatment of others?
A brand identity should have social impact, but it should not simply be a marketing tool.
They say that charity starts at home, and brands should be doing just that.
Acknowledge the custodians of the land a brand is based on, and ensure the company is respectful of the indigenous people, culture, and history.
Support local causes, local organisations, local communities.
Support the causes which aren’t so palatable, but are critically necessary.
Clothing campaigns can become activist campaigns, it just requires a brand to channel the strategic intention and effort they put into releasing a capsule collection, or even a new tote bag.