Sustainable Fashion Influencing
Have you ever tried to process so many things at once that it’s as if each thought is a piece of over-cooked spaghetti tangled up in your amygdala, and that expressing yourself is now all but impossible?
For me, this season of pandemic has been one long spaghetti situation.
Among numerous stressors, griefs, guilts, and worries, I’m also caught in the middle of a kind of identity crisis. It’s not THE most important thing to work through, but since it’s tangled up in the spaghetti of more existential questions, my mind eventually follows it. This is my attempt to confront it.
The crisis has to do with sustainable fashion, influencer “community,” and my role in all of it.
Can Ethical Companies Stay Ethical In a Crisis?
It all started when I made the difficult decision to step back from my business relationship with Everlane amidst allegations from the Everlane Union that several dozen customer service workers were laid off due to their unionization efforts. It was hard to parse the details several weeks ago – and not much else has come out to help clarify the truth of the situation (Though Fashionista wrote a helpful piece about it). Yet I have removed their affiliate link from the post that garners the majority of commission and I haven’t headlined them since. I still don’t know if that was the right decision, but if I don’t know, how can I go back?
In the first few weeks of social distancing, the unemployment toll was so high and the social safety net so tenuous that any new furlough announcement or tear-filled PR release about lay-offs felt like the worst thing that could possibly happen. Consumers, followers, and influencers were heartbroken, and outraged.
Eileen Fisher furloughed workers almost as soon as we all shut ourselves indoors. It seemed premature, but it also highlighted for me how utterly fragile businesses must have been if they couldn’t sustain wages for a couple of weeks. I, too, was swept up in a profound feeling of disappointment.
Now, as the sustainable fashion community mourns Elizabeth’s Suzann’s closure announcement, I am once again spiraling. In ES’ cases, workers WERE compensated at their full wages for the last 6-7 weeks of shutdowns and economic uncertainty, and they still had to close. In fact, Suzann herself connects the huge financial burden of compensating her workers to the fact that they are moments away from bankruptcy. Now, instead of disappointment, what I feel is something like culpability.
If ES had chosen to act against consumer demands to maintain employee wages, choosing instead to furlough them so that they could take unemployment benefits (which, thanks to the “stimulus” plan, are workable), would it have been possible for them to survive closures for long enough to reemploy a majority of workers by the fall season?
I don’t know enough about backend financials to know the answer to that. I do know that Elizabeth Suzann has always operated on very thin margins in an effort to make clothing accessible to more people, and that is certainly a contributing factor.
But I still have to wonder if the gamble ES made has proven to be the wrong choice, and whether “I” (really, ethics-minded followers in general) had something to do with it.
Cash Flow and Capitalism
Everlane’s founder mentions in his press release regarding layoffs that the company is not profitable. While it was easy enough to dismiss that as straightforward irresponsibility five weeks ago, when small businesses who have “done everything right” start folding, it forces me to reconsider how much I really know. Certainly, ES is not a company you would call irresponsible. But maybe, in this case, the “right” thing to do was only right in the short term. (Note, too, that while they didn’t have to close, Nisolo announced mass layoffs and furloughs at their Latin American factory and Nashville headquarters.)
Is a company sustainable if they can’t survive?
How could things have gone differently in an alternate reality where brands were encouraged to price fairly, consumers could afford to buy fairly priced goods, employees were compensated fairly, and businesses felt obligated to build rainy day funds? I knew the system was broken, but now I realize that even the best of ’em were living on borrowed time.
There is no way we’re getting out of this without making impossible moral choices.
More than anything, I don’t want companies I love to dissolve because they were trying to keep all the balls in the air, especially if they did it because they feared retribution from their fickle fans. The ball has already dropped.
What if My “Right” Answer Isn’t the Truth?
All of that to say that I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with trusting my gut when it comes to choosing how to engage with layoff announcements and other hard decisions companies are facing right now. I was so outraged a month and a half ago, but as each new mournful press release gets shared on social media, I realize that outrage is not a solution for an intractable problem. At least in the case of small brands, maybe it’s time for me to trust their judgment.
I am becoming aware of how little I actually know, and how limited the role of influencer really is when it comes to systemic change.
I no longer think I can “change the world through how I shop.” It’s beautiful and meaningful to build loyalty with a brand owner, but friendship does not equate to industry change, especially when I’m promoting brands that exist far outside the price range of the average consumer. This pandemic has shown us that, in the face of massive inequities and exploitation, consumer choice is merely a distraction from political action and community solidarity.
I no longer believe that “ethical” perfection can ever coexist with capitalism, especially in light of immense wage disparities and other systemic barriers among would-be consumers. We are staring this reality in the face right now. Companies must make value judgments that necessarily exclude other values.
I don’t buy the argument that what we need is more “educators” in the sustainable fashion space. I think a lot of us who became interested in sustainable fashion through the devastation of Rana Plaza or documentaries like The True Cost thought that what we could offer was our voices, when, in reality, our actions matter a whole lot more. The cacophony of disinformation we are at risk of spreading as armchair educators could be catastrophic.
If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we should trust the experts, before we self-sabotage. We need good journalists, researchers, agricultural workers, environmentalists, ethicists, and industry insiders.
We also need people who are willing to fully commit to educating themselves before crafting content. (No more hot takes!)
After all, WTF are we doing here if not sincerely engaging with the truth?
I want to be able to admit that I could be wrong, about a lot of things. And to continue seeking the truth anyway.
When it comes to judging businesses in terms of their ethics, I don’t think we’re going to have easy answers. That is true now, but it will continue to be true when things go back to “normal.” Complexity doesn’t perform well online, but it is the only chance we have of wrestling back truth in our discourse.
If I’m serious about engaging morally in the world, I have to stop thinking that this is a game to be consumed by zealous followers, or that my worth or my work is in any way dependent on social media engagement. I am ready to push beyond it, to engage in communities that sit with our mutual vulnerability. When I ask hard questions, I want to look forward to being humbled by answers I could have never dreamed up on my own. I am grateful to be in a program that, for the most part, questions everything without ever for a second thinking the truth will eradicate our ability to love one another.
I have to remember that what I think and what I know are two different things. When it comes to negotiating supply chain ethics, I have to be willing to ask, “What if I’m wrong?”
Being able to admit that I don’t know is courageous, because I put my reputation at risk by doing so. But it is also the only way I’ll ever be able to tell a true story.
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