In the Fashion Industry, Woke is the New Black

Fashion has become a definitive, significant aspect of our lives by allowing us to adopt unique identities, preserve culture, and perhaps even satisfy our innately competitive edges through luxury. Throughout history, fashion has constantly evolved to meet the needs of society and it has moved from providing shelter from the elements to producing brands that allow us to achieve self-expression. Fashion also plays a large role in social interactions, as it groups people together as often as it facilitates standing out from the crowd, and it allows others to make judgements based on what they see someone is wearing. The industry is worth $2.4 trillion, which would be the world’s seventh-largest economy by gross domestic product (GDP), so it is safe to say that fashion is a relatively noteworthy slice of the economy. 

A shopping mall in Melbourne, Australia (image: Mathieu Cartoixa).

A shopping mall in Melbourne, Australia (image: Mathieu Cartoixa).

However, as glamorous as the world of fashion may seem, there are many serious issues that plague the industry. Inhumane labor practices lead to workers remaining underpaid, and 50% of the victims involved in human trafficking end up in these forms of labor. 168 million girls are forced to work around the world, many for companies that exploit their labor in order to provide chic clothing for oblivious middle class European or American citizens. Large companies take advantage of impoverished individuals who eventually agree to work up to 16 hours a day for far less pay than they deserve and in terrible health or safety conditions. 

Cultural appropriation is another huge issue in which certain brands or designers adopt certain aspects of a culture that is not their own for the sake of fashion and redefine these cultural characteristics in their own terms. This essentially ignores histories of discrimination and oppression, allows the dominant cultures to define a certain culture as “cool” while remaining prejudiced against its people. It ignores the true significance of the culture, and lessens the experience of what it means to be a person who has lived in that community their entire life.

Sustainability has recently become a concern that affects the future of our planet. Due to the phenomenon of “fast fashion,” we each own approximately 5 times as many garments as our grandparents once did. After the oil industry, the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world. High water consumption, toxic materials, harmful microfibers, large waste production, greenhouse gases, and forest destruction are some of the consequences of fast fashion that are destroying the Earth. 

Transparency in the supply chain can allow many fashion companies to avoid unfair labor practices, since knowing which brands are employing specific supplier factories would allow workers to file complaints with the brands directly. H&M became the first company to make this information public in 2013. Investors, governments, and stakeholders can encourage more companies to become transparent in order to save lives and become more responsible for a company’s actions. 

Companies can actively avoid cultural appropriation by hiring positions that aim to analyze the cultural component of advertising and products, as well as by consulting focus groups or their audience to find out how something may be received. They can also strive to truly understand the culture they are attempting to utilize in their brand, and give credit to the cultures. 

Fast fashion, or the inexpensive mass production of expendable clothing, has a terrible effect on the environment. By ignoring trends and avoiding giving into the urge to constantly purchase new clothing to keep up with current styles, people can create much less waste. Consumers can also choose to purchase clothes made in countries with stricter environmental regulations like the U.S. or Canada, wash clothes only when necessary to conserve water, recycle clothes, and choose organic/sustainable brands. 

Burberry has made the decision to become one of the biggest eco-friendly, sustainable brands through methods like reducing carbon emissions, and hopefully other companies will follow in suit. Only through making drastic changes that keep the plight of other humans and the Earth in mind can companies start to create a more positive impact in the world of fashion. If consumers also decide to be more conscious of their fashion-related decisions, then the course of the industry can truly renounce its darker footprints.