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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Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Saturday 30th of May 2020
Thank you for this post, it voiced a lot of issues I have been thinking about lately too. I really enjoyed the comments as well. It feels good to know others are wrestling with some of the same issues, especially the transition to ethical fashion and then realizing it’s not enough. You can over consume “ethical” fashion too. I’ve come to think it’s more important (and much, much harder) to change the consumption mindset. I’ve finally decided to discontinue reading fashion blogs for this reason, except for a few that don’t consistently make me want to shop (like this one). I knew blogs were a consistent source of temptation, leading to overconsumption, but it was so hard to shut off the tap, because then how would I hear about new ethical brands? Plus as I reader you start to feel attached to the blogger. But my consumption rate was not sustainable. It would be better to make far fewer purchases from non self-proclaimed ethical brands than to buy so much from ethical brands, so frankly I’m better off not knowing about them. And reading those blogs, when you get down to it, is like consistently voluntarily exposing myself to advertising. Why would I do that?? I’ll still favor ethical brands but I don’t need to be constantly on the prowl for them.
Anyways, thank you for your thoughtful content! I wish more voices inspired conversations like this. I think the comments here show there is a hunger for it.
Wednesday 20th of May 2020
Truthfully, I've all but QUIT following all the "ethical fashion" bloggers (except you, because you are actually thought-provoking!). It seems so off-base or off-key--pushing and pedaling any sort of "fashion" right now. Snake-oil of a different kind...
I still very much appreciate the "education" I've received from ethical bloggers because it has changed my mindset on what kind of new clothes to look for, but ultimately, I think just creating a SMALL capsule that doesn't change (evolve, purge, closet-staples...whatever) and turnover with new "staples" every season...that's what I'm aiming for. Consume-less. Turnover LESS. Shop LESS. When I buy, I look for used or some version of "ethical"/"ecological"/made in USA...but like you suggest, I don't look for perfection in those claims. (I appreciate that you have DONE some research though!!! I really do!!!!)
Is my money really better spent buying the $150 version of a shirt...or am I better off giving $130 to a scholarship or gift-card to a local student in need in my school...and buying the $20 target version of the shirt for myself? Maybe the answer doesn't matter at all...as long as I give in some way.
Wednesday 20th of May 2020
I totally agree with your shopping philosophy, and find that when I spend time focusing on fit and quality - whether the item is new or secondhand - I really do wear my clothes forever. One issue I've had getting swept up in "ethical" consumption is that I end up with things that don't really fit me well or suit me just because they're on trend in the community, and then the cycle of consumption continues as I search for something better. I really appreciate you last point, too. I think it's kind of scary that ethics is often conflated with a dedication to consumption. Of course it matters - but it's not the only thing that matters.
Tuesday 19th of May 2020
Great post - I think you hit the nail on the head with the question - if a business can't survive past a few months without revenue, are they really sustainable? I believe, with sustainability/climate change becoming a hot topic over the past few years (which is great, I'm not complaining), we have lost the original and true meaning of "Sustainability" which is, to be able to continue in perpetuity at a certain rate. I think it's important to remember that sustainability is so much more than ethical/eco-friendly practices but also a mindset around healthy longevity.
Tuesday 5th of May 2020
Thank you for this, this is a super thought-provoking take. I agree with the idea that ES had a lot of balls in the air. How do you personally think brands should approach ethics and sustainability, whilst still keeping their business profitable and in line with "capitalism"? It's a slippery slope for sure. Do you think it's possible?
Thursday 7th of May 2020
I think that's the Catch-22. Brands have to make choices that are "good enough" and commit to continually improve their supply chain rather than try to do it all in an industry that, ironically, makes being sustainable unsustainable. I think that having a 5-year plan with targeted goals is better than trying to be perfect from the outset.
Saturday 2nd of May 2020
The closure of ES really shocked me, and I felt a very odd yet profound grief over the situation. I thought that if any brand could make it, it would be them. They have bonafide cult status, are wildly popular, have literally set the bar for other similar ethical companies. I loved the brand--I have saved up for three pieces from them (two of them for my wedding, which is now postponed and is the likely source of much of my grief over this whole thing) and had planned to get more. I thought they were doing all the right things. And yet they closed.
I of course don't know all of the behind-the-scenes financials either, but as I read the news I wondered the same--if ES would have survived if they had done the "unethical" thing to furlough their employees. Especially considering their business model. It makes me very sad...I mean, so many more now unemployed and having to find work in what is likely to be a vicious recession. It's just not looking good.
I think I'm feeling much the same that you are. I'm feeling very unmoored. Maybe if I let go of this desire to be perfect in using consumption to signal my values, I can free up some space to engage in the political and community work that needs to be done.
Anyway, this comment was long, and ramble-y, so please feel free to disregard! I really appreciated this post, and your letting us in to your introspection, and this comment section to vent my thoughts.
Sunday 3rd of May 2020
Thanks for sharing some of your grief. I'm sorry to hear that you had to postpone your wedding. While I only ever purchased from an ES sample sale, I was shocked, as well. It seemed like they were too beloved to fall, but I see now that things were way more complicated than that, and cult following doesn't necessarily equal an ability to survive an unprecedented crisis. Now that I'm in grad school focusing on hyperlocal issues, I am also trying to navigate how much time to spend on consumer ethics and how much to immerse myself in what's available to me locally. I have felt guilty this year for having to put blog stuff on the backburner, but now I realize that maybe that has been good.