Feminism in fashion is literally falling apart at the seams. Overproduction and underemphasis on social justice issues threaten not only the field, but the earth as well.
Lightwash, Darkwash, Greenwash, or Brainwash?
Feminism in fashion is literally falling apart at the seams. Overproduction and underemphasis on social justice issues threaten not only the field, but the earth as well. In today’s climate, it is important that we recognize and repair those seams through sustainable measures, beginning within the industry. Oftentimes, consumers and stakeholders seem to forget the physical blood, sweat, and tears that go into the mass production of garments as well as the environmental impacts that they can have. People are quick to grasp at the surface level sustainability movement within the fashion industry but few back up their “Go Green” t-shirts with any actionable steps toward reducing their carbon emissions. Many garments are performative–the consumer tries to do everything in their power to seem like a fashionable feminist. However, most of the time, the performative measures on these garments are nothing more than mere words. Consumers are being blinded by the performative gilded brainwashing done by big corporations. Although trends like “greenwashing,” performative feminism, and over-consumption of fast fashion have permeated the modern fashion industry, the feminist movement persists. This can be seen in a recent surge in sustainable trends such as home sewing, upcycling, and second-hand clothing. By understanding the fashion industry’s core issues through careful analysis, consumers may be more conscientious of their purchasing habits and potentially adopt more sustainable practices, leading to the obsolescence of greenwashing trends as a whole.
A Deceitful Market & the “Greenwashing” Phenomena
It is no secret that the fashion industry has long sustained itself through deceitful marketing practices, and that tradition continues on today through a trend called “greenwashing.” However, greenwashing does not necessarily correlate to actual sustainability practices. Rather, as Mariko Takedomi Karlsson, and Vasna Ramasar define the term: “Turning risks into opportunities is a cornerstone of business strategy, and the way that fast fashion brands use their discursive power of shaping public opinion through greenwashing is a direct reflection of that. The risk of climate change is then transformed into an opportunity for companies to sell and market things differently.”1 Capitalistic corporations see social change, and serious issues included therein, as an opportunity for financial gain. If the consumer is manipulated into believing that they have the simple power of saving the planet through their own consumption, they will take that opportunity. However, greenwashing is a deceitful tactic that typically works to grab the gullible attention and sympathy of the public. Statistics consistently show that by appearing to be eco-friendly, brands can earn 90 percent or more customer loyalty. Unfortunately, whether or not the sustainability measures are valid or even real does not seem to matter. On one end of the spectrum, fashion companies are finally taking mitigating measures to address climate change and reduce their carbon footprint. On the other end, “greenwashing” is merely another marketing ploy.
Indeed, current fashion marketing often works to obfuscate and circumvent the true environmental intentions of a brand, which further engenders unsustainable and anti-feminist practices. First, sustainability and feminism go hand in hand. Because environmental change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable groups, sustainability is essential to modern feminism. In the fashion world, one cannot claim to be an avid supporter of the feminist movement yet wear clothing that has exploitation woven into its seams. Furthermore, Karlsson and Ramasar go on to point out: “Moving beyond greenwashing as a general concept…some industries push greenwashing consumerism disproportionately onto female consumers.”2 Greenwashing attempts to prey on women’s emotions and manipulate them in order to get them to consume a product that they otherwise would not; therefore, this practice is anti-feminist, exploitative, and damaging.
Performative Feminism in Fashion: Can Clothing Really Make an Impact?
Sometimes stages are not only used for theater: feminism has proven its ability to become a performance not only to entertain but also to appease an audience. Clothing is a bare necessity for daily life. Brands claim to “ethically source” their clothing, but what does that mean? Are their practices effectively sustainable, or are they merely performative? Vogue, which is known as the handbook for how to be the best in the fashion world recently published an article entitled “Vogue’s Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion.” This guide is comprised of loose suggestions for how one can be ethically conscious (e.g., watching consumption and rethinking habits), but articles like these are purely performative and neglect to address the grassroot issues. To “avoid greenwashing” through vapid listicles is a far-reaching yet empty statement from a publication that is widely considered to be the world’s authority on what to wear. If a piece of clothing “claims” to be doing environmental justice, the credulous buyer led blindly by consumer culture is more likely to act (i.e., buy it). Further complicating the matter, a common sexist perception is that women are weak and unable to think for themselves. Whether intentional or not, large corporations take advantage of this invented stereotype and work to monetize it by preying upon females via targeted marketing.
Furthermore, consumer culture perpetuates a cycle of conspicuous consumption by promoting the public display of wealth and social standing. Typically, the ethical implications of clothing are not kept in mind when making the decision to purchase a garment, especially a high fashion one. Via the implied guidelines of society, clothing is purchased in some instances out of necessity, but in most others, fashion is used as a vehicle to show who you are and what you have. Greenwashing tactics opportunize the exploitation of females by convincing them that their next purchase can not only improve their social standing but “save the environment” as well. In fact, many prime examples of performative feminism in fashion can be found on garments themselves—typically womenswear. Well known international companies such as H&M and Zara have been exposed by the media for “claiming that a product is ‘sustainable’ when it is not immediately clear what in particular about the product makes it ‘sustainable’ … [which is] more often than not…misleading.’”3 . Consumers of lower, or even middle, socioeconomic classes often buy from these companies because they appeal to a certain budget, which is understandable if not wholly ethical. The greater issue, however, lies in the consumers who are financially able to make more ethically-minded purchases when it comes to apparel. Popularizing unsustainable brands for the sake of affordable trendiness has shifted the culture of fashion away from more sustainable practices, which perpetuates a cycle that causes detriment to the environment. In response, consumers must refuse to continue to perpetuate the unsustainable cycle that these companies thrive on when they have the means to invest in the goodness of ethically conscious, sustainable, and elegant apparel.
Moreover, Zara and H&M respond by putting forth empty promises: “‘We have an open line of communication with H&M with regards to current and future marketing and the impression is that we are in agreement on how the law is to be interpreted.’’”4 This statement includes no promise to pursue and honor environmental justice and no specificity as to the plan of action. Their sustainability measures are merely performative with no evidence to back them up. Loose promises of investigation do nothing when the brand is so wide-reaching and impactful within the fashion world. Once again, companies are putting on a show of performative sustainability.
Indeed, greenwashing in fashion has become an epidemic aimed at exploiting people, especially women, who are intrigued by the idea of reducing their carbon footprints yet misinformed about what that actually looks like. Under capitalism, corporations stand too much to gain from manipulating their consumer base—which is essentially the goal of marketing. However, such practices beg many ethical questions. As Joy et. al. posits: “Cost is far from the sole barrier to embracing eco-fashion: style, quality, color, compatibility with one’s current wardrobe, and an ongoing desire for new clothes—valuing volume over ethical considerations—affect consumer purchase decisions as well.”5 Ethics are low on the laundry list of what goes into a garment and often even lower when it comes to the consumer’s decision to purchase it. As a result, quite literally, a majority of garments made, bought, and worn in the US today are beginning to resemble dirty laundry.
Ethical Considerations: Influencers and the Rise of Fast Fashion
The relatively new industry known as “fast fashion” has been swiftly gaining traction in American society and culture in the past decade or so, and it has been killing the environment and ruining the elegance of clothing just as swiftly by reproducing unique pieces for the sake of consumption rather than for their innate artistic value (e.g., design, materials, and construction). The rise of influencer culture, which is inseparable from the rise of social media in the past decade, has perpetuated a destructive cycle of overproduction, overconsumption, and overall devaluation of the fashion industry. Fast fashion and influencer culture are both harmful on their own, but even more deadly as a duo. Fast fashion is made for the purpose of disposal. The quality of the product itself along with the quality of the production conditions are two parts of an unsustainable equation. The product is exactly what it claims to be: fast fashion. It is created with: “low maintenance (cheaper and quicker to chuck than to launder and iron), low risk—or so it appears (buy in haste, no need to repent if it doesn’t look right), and the convenience is unrivaled (swipe, click and answer the door).”6 The market for fast fashion is, therefore, vast. The industry appeals to those of any socioeconomic class; however, it does all an injustice because the clothing is short-lasting and low quality. In theory, accessible, affordable, and on-trend fashion sounds like a great deal. Looking further into the seams of what is holding this industry together, it is a mess of unsustainable practices.
One case in point: influencers have become the driving force of trends and have influenced society’s modern consumption through endorsing unethical fast-fashion brands such as Shein. While social media celebrities rake in money doing what are commonly known as hauls, “at a major Shein logistics center…warehouse staff said they struggled to cope with the intense work, which can involve walking dozens of kilometers a shift with few rest breaks.”7 The inequity behind production practices is inherently anti-feminist. Workers, many of whom are women, are placed in incredibly dangerous situations: unairconditioned sweatshops with no ventilation without breaks or fair pay, and all of this while standing on their feet for ten hours a day. How can one claim to be a proponent of the sustainability movement, the feminist movement, and furthermore, both of them if one supports companies that treat their workers like animals? Through a holistic lens, if one clothing brand is sustainably unethical, they all are. To make matters worse, the success of this business model has led companies to frequently “identify designs trending in the West and produce similar items ready for export in just a few days—a model now known as ‘ultra-fast-fashion.’”8 The problematic nature of such practices is only increasing over time. Ultra-fast-fashion creates its own self-sabotaging and capitalist discrepancies because of how quickly brands move to overproduce a product or garment in relation to the viral rise of one trend. Oftentimes, these trends are not able to run their course and see their potential success. This “ultra-fast-fashion” movement halts the beauty of carefully crafted elegant clothing by jumping on trends too hastily and aggressively, overproducing what oftentimes turns out to be unsuccessful and, ultimately, unsellable clothing. This clothing, then, eventually, stockpiles and becomes dead waste. There is no second life.
Additionally, with the most recent updates in social media platforms, such as the Instagram Shop feature and Tik Tok Creator Marketplace, marketing tactics are more far-reaching than ever before. Tik Tok is an addictively gratifying app that encourages its user to scroll for hours. The Tik Tok Creator Marketplace, in turn, is an online hub where brands and creators partner together to sell a product to millions of users. Many fast-fashion brands see this as a lucrative opportunity to persuade the easily influenced buyer to further promote the negative impacts of their brand. Social media users who have no prior proclivity toward fashion, let alone fast fashion or ultra-fast-fashion, are being bombarded with targeted advertising on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Every click translates into sales, which further translates into support for unsustainable, unethical practices and keeps problematic companies in business (and in profit), oftentimes unbeknownst to the casual social media participant.
Unfortunately, the average consumer struggles to see the impact of investing in long-term, capsule wardrobe of quality products due to the instant gratification of fast fashion combined with the level of micro-marketing that companies are able to achieve via social media. Society has failed to grasp the far-reaching implications of the rise of fast-fashion because we are so consumed in the instant gratification and necessity to be on-trend that equates to societal acceptance. However, this cycle can be broken. There are modernized ethical brands that hold true to their statements of proposed sustainability. These companies are transparent about their end-to-end process, not for the sake of traction, but for the sake of the environment.
The Next Wave
The anger surrounding the anti-feminist and, therefore, the anti-sustainibility movement has propelled companies, consumers, and society as a collective to push toward a more equitable solution. There has been a recent emergence of interest in simply keeping what is already owned. Fashion is cyclical; nothing ever truly goes out of style. Additionally, rewearing clothing can inspire society to go against accepted norms and likewise motivate individuals to create their own unique ways of dress. In this vein, recently, there has been an uptick in sustainable fashion trends like home-sewing. Such sustainable trends go against everything that fast-fashion stands for and provide a reasonable solution to anti-feminist fashion and sustainability issues by taking production off the conveyor belt and putting it in the hands of individual creators once again. As Jessica Bain posits in her journal article for the Women’s Studies International Forum: “I sew because I choose to sew, not because it is expected of me. I am equal to a man whether I am a sewist or a scientist. I am here right now to stand tall and say: I am a woman. I am a sewist. I am a feminist.”9 Interestingly enough, this attitude is rejecting the rejection of the predetermined homemaker female stereotype. Not only does the uptick in the sewing movement save the environment, but it also goes against the assumption that women can be easily “greenwashed” due to their emotions. As a female collective, we must lift up each other’s choices and celebrate each other’s crafts and skills, no matter what our own attitudes toward them might be. Through a positively uplifting feminist-societal bond, the sewing industry can take off—and it has. Home-sewing, along with other sustainable trends, stands staunchly in disapproval of the environmentally unfriendly fast-fashion movement. Bain goes on to say, “…part of the reason I choose to make my own clothing is because fast fashion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It just feels wrong to wear something against my skin when I don’t know who made it, I don’t know how much they were paid to make it, or whether they were treated fairly and humanely in the process.”10. Handcrafting clothing through slow-fashion methods adds a blanket of love and care to something that some consider to be mundane. Bain proclaims: “It’s a way to stand out, to be individual, to make a statement against mass production and the homogeneity of fashion and also to be more responsible; reducing landfill, knowing where your clothes came from and who made them and the responsible practices that are associated with that, particularly if you are very selective about where your fabric comes from.”11 In short, engaging in responsible fashion is not only ethical, but stylish and chic as well.
As members of a society that has influence over a population of young and impressionable women, we have the singular opportunity to stimulate a widespread paradigm shift. There has already been a massive increase in second-hand clothing (e.g., consignment, thrifting, trading, etc.) and those who support this facet of the fashion industry are very passionate. By being concious of our consumption and understanding how to circumvent the malice of greenwashing, as a feminist collective we will be able to further push the sustainable fashion movement forward. Brands that pride themselves on transparency, such as Reformation and The RealReal, stay true to their mission of nurturing the environment. These brands give the consumer confidence in what they are buying and deserve recognition and support.
Feminism is complex and intersectional; it is evolving all the time. Oftentimes, what used to be accepted no longer is, and vice versa, issues that previously didn’t matter are at the forefront of social discourse today. A prime example of this is sustainability, especially as it relates to the fashion industry and the recent rise in fast fashion. Consumers as a whole currently lack, but are working to gain, an understanding of conscious consumption. The exposure and rejection of fast-fashion brands like Shein, along with the current trendiness and importance of sustainability, have primed society to make a meaningful change. The current wave of feminism must acknowledge its intersectionality with environmental issues and immerse itself in the knowledge available. Furthermore, those in positions of power and privilege must take a stand in favor of a more equitable fashion industry. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance will lead to continued unethical and destructive practices within the fashion industry and the world. As feminists, we want to support what ultimately supports us, and we can do so one needle, thread, and garment at a time.
- Mariko Takedomi Karlsson and Vasna Ramasar, “Selling Women the Green Dream: The Paradox of Feminism and Sustainability in Fashion Marketing,” Journal of Political Ecology 27, no. 1 (2020): doi:10.2458/v27i1.23584.
- Karlsson and Ramasar, “Selling Women the Green Dream.”
- Elizabeth Segran, “H&M, Zara, and Other Fashion Brands Are Tricking Shoppers with Vague Sustainability Claims,” Fast Company, August 8, 2019
- Segran, “H&M, Zara, and Other Fashion Brands Are Tricking Shoppers with Vague Sustainability Claims.”
- Annamma Joy, et al., “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands,” Fashion Theory 16, no. 3 (2012): 273–295.
- Dilys Williams, “Shein: The Unacceptable Face of Throwaway Fast Fashion,” The Guardian, April 10, 2022
- Wu Peiyue, “The Shady Labor Practices Underpinning Shein’s Global Fashion Empire,” #SixthTone, February 8, 2022
- Peiyue, “Shady Labor Practices.”
- Jessica Bain, “‘Darn Right I’m a Feminist…Sew What?’ The Politics of Contemporary Home Dressmaking: Sewing, Slow Fashion and Feminism,” Women’s Studies International Forum 54 (2016): 61., doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2015.11.001.
- Bain, “Darn Right,” 63.
- Bain, “Darn Right,” 64.