Who Gets to Be a Fashion Activist?

Two camps have emerged within the sustainability movement: those who look to business as an ally, and those who see it as the enemy.

When you think of the word "activist," what comes to mind? It might conjure up images of placards, protests and petitions. These days, having a cause is a lucrative business, so much so that influencers and celebrities are embracing activism at a dizzying pace. As more fast-fashion brands look to join the sustainability conversation, they're keen to enlist them as sustainability ambassadors, much to the chagrin of traditional fashion activists.

It seems that every few months, a new fast fashion-influencer partnership riles up the sustainable fashion community. In March 2021, Irish presenter Laura Whitmore signed on as the ambassador for Primark Cares, the high-street brand's sustainability initiative. It was closely followed in April by actor Maisie Williams, who became H&M's global sustainability ambassador. This year, Pretty Little Thing named Love Island contestant Indiya Polack as ambassador for the brand's new resale marketplace. And most recently, Boohoo announced that Kourtney Kardashian Barker would become the brand's sustainability ambassador, releasing a 45-piece collection, clothing care guide and documentary series.

With each new announcement, the backlash has grown louder, spilling over from activist communities on social media and onto mainstream media platforms. Brands and influencers alike are called out for their hypocrisy, greenwashing and the co-opting of sustainability to sell products. Others see these influencer partnerships as an increasingly important part of the movement, acknowledging their power to connect with (and inform the consumption habits of) potentially millions of people. It begs the question: Can the two groups coexist?

Disagreeing on how to enact change isn't a new issue within the sustainability movement. Andy Hoffman, a scholar of environmental issues and professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, splits the two camps into "Bright Greens" and "Dark Greens." "Bright Green environmental groups look at the market as a solution and business as an ally, while the Dark Green see business as the enemy and the market as the problem," he explains. Rather than having opposing missions, Hoffman says "they're both necessary to create the energy to get change to happen."

Celebrities and influencers — the Bright Greens in this scenario — often justify fast-fashion partnerships with the reasoning that they want to make sustainability more accessible. This is exactly what worries Venetia La Manna, a fair-fashion campaigner and podcaster who falls into the Dark Green category. "My biggest concern is that people are going to come to sustainability for the first time through someone like Kourtney Kardashian or something like Pretty Little Thing," she says. "They're going to realize they've been greenwashed; it's actually not sustainable or ethical. They'll feel misled, so they'll check out. They won't be interested anymore because they can't work out what's right or wrong."

There's also the question of education. How much can an influencer, assuming they have no experience working in supply-chain management or material sourcing, really inform their audience or hold the brand accountable from within? Are they equipped to ask the tough questions that Dark Green activists would ask in the same position? The likelihood is, they become a mouthpiece for a brand's greenwashing to reach an even bigger audience.

La Manna wants more action and less talk from fast-fashion brands and their ambassadors. "Obviously, I'm more interested in them making fundamental changes than I am in hearing about it. I think they're taking up way too much space and the industry is giving them too much of a platform," she says. "It's absolutely fundamental that they make drastic changes very quickly, but I want them to do it in a way that doesn't involve them making themselves out like the solution."

Certainly, many Dark Green activists see fast fashion "conscious" collaborations as a direct contradiction of everything they fight for. "These campaigns really aren't advancing things," says La Manna. "They're doing everything in their power to not listen to our two main demands, which are: decrease your output and pay your garment makers a fair living wage."

Celebrity influencers like Kardashian Barker, who is rumored to be worth around $65 million, could probably do without profiting off garment workers, more than half of which still earn below minimum wage making Boohoo clothing in Leicester, in the U.K. "We need celebrities to be standing up to climate and social justice without the temptation of a paycheck. Why do they need that motivation?" asks La Manna. "Of all people, [Kardashian Barker] is in a financial position to turn down that paycheck. No one needs a paycheck more than garment makers."

Christina Dean, the founder of the Redress Design Award and brand The R Collective, has been working to reduce textile waste in fashion for the last 15 years. She was interviewed by Kardashian Barker in episode two of Boohoo's documentary series, seeing it as an opportunity to raise awareness about waste and overconsumption. "Sustainability advocates often preach to the converted," she says. "We agreed to do this because we wanted to get the cat among the pigeons and talk to new audiences in an introductory way. Unless someone turns your lightbulb on, you're not going to see anything."

Throughout her career, Dean says her perspective on activism has evolved with experience. "I value the sentiment, the power and the emotion that triggers [Dark Green activists'] democratic view of what the solutions could be," she says. "But I think that there's a place for many more people to become activists in their own right by positively influencing the communities in which they live. There's a place for everyone at the table, but being informed is really important."

An ex-fashion influencer who now creates mindful fashion content, Andrea Cheong understands the pressure influencers feel to produce the content that their audience expects. Dipping their toes into sustainability can be unfamiliar, and dangerous, territory. "I don’t think it's really about a divide about who cares and who doesn't care about sustainability. I think what it comes down to is how much they're swayed by advertising," she says. Clearly, many influencers are drawn to these fast-fashion partnerships for the paycheck. Without fast-fashion collaborations, what could the career ladder for a successful influencer look like in the future?

Cheong believes that the tide is slowly turning, as influencers see the success that their slow-fashion counterparts are having. "So many people started considering switching to something more mindful because they saw my videos go viral. They realized they didn't need to do try-on videos," she says. "They also saw me get a couple of cool brand deals, and it made them realize they can still make a living out of this. I know it seems like a small drop in the ocean, but it has a knock-on effect. Influencers can influence each other."

La Manna echoes this sentiment. "If you're really keen to earn a lot of money, there are ways to do that with 1 million followers that don't involve a fast-fashion partnership," she says. "If you can do anything to educate yourself about what your 'tap to buy' links could be doing to further exploit people and the planet, please engage with that. Don't underestimate your power."

One thing the interviewees are keen to emphasize: this debate isn't about moral superiority. "I'm not a better or nicer person just because I don't shop at Zara," says Cheong. "Online, it becomes very reductive. People associate wearing fast fashion with not being nice — it's mindblowing." Instead, it's undoubtedly more effective to set a positive example that encourages more influencers to rethink their contribution to the conversation.

There are plenty of avenues that influencers and celebrities can go down that can help to future-proof their career in a more positive way. "I've seen some influencers say they're not accepting fast-fashion gifting. I've seen others say they want to shop secondhand for as long as they can," says Cheong. "I've seen some talk about only independent brands. It's great to see that effect on your peers."

Despite the chasm between the Bright Greens and Dark Greens, it's clear that turning on each other isn't doing much to fix the seismic issues facing the fashion industry. It's crucial that the more influencers and celebrities become involved in the sustainability movement, the more they're empowered to educate themselves, evolve their perspectives, make mistakes and learn from them, too. It's time to expand the definition of an activist to include more people in the movement, says Dean.

"I've started to use the word a bit more liberally. It's taken me 15 years to be where I am today and to understand that there are many shades of green," she says. "To get something done, we have to be open-minded."

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