Shaming women out of fast-fashion won’t combat sustainability; empowering women will

The 2020 satirical indie horror film Slaxx exposes the horrors associated with the fashion industry when a pair of jeans become possessed by the exploited factory workers who made them. Frustrated by the cynicism of Western consumer society and the layers of injustice fashion generates, the jeans engage in a rampant bloodbath targeting the influencers, vloggers, consumers and fashion store managers that perpetuate the inhumane conditions through which they are produced. Using a combination of gore and comedy, the raging jeans point to an apocalypse fuelled by the perceived immorality of the fast fashion.

Poor factory conditions loom heavy on fast-fashion giant Boohoo. Former High Court judge Sir Brian Leveson has overseen investigations following last year’s scandal into its Leicester supply chain. Just weeks ago, the Levitt report was published causing Boohoo to weed out 122 suppliers who failed to comply with sustainable practices, seeing the retailer rapidly scale back its supply chain from 200 to 78.

Inquiries like these are right to shine a light on the dark side of the fashion industry, but simultaneously ignore the fact that fast-fashion is thriving regardless. Despite a 75 per cent increase in Google searches for sustainable fashion and a sweeping social media campaign encouraging consumers to boycott the retail giant in 2020, Boohoo is valued at more than $4 billion, and its sales soared by 45 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic. A widespread quest for affordable clothing saw Google searches for “cheap clothes” rise by 46 per cent during the same period of the unveiling of Boohoo’s dark manufacturing processes.

But how effective is the shame game vividly represented in Slaxx? Fashion activist Tolmeia Gregory disagrees with it as a method in combatting the eco and ethical issues surrounding disposable fashion. “I don’t think outwardly shaming individuals for shopping on Boohoo will ever get us anywhere because it ends up with people putting up a front and going into defence mode.”

Shame makes people feel bad about themselves, so could lead to disengagement

University of Manchester fashion lecturer Dr Patsy Perry agrees, arguing that humiliating consumers into submission will not prove fruitful. “Shame makes people feel bad about themselves, so could lead to disengagement.” Research professor Brené Brown, who has spent two decades studying vulnerability, shame and empathy, says that shame is rarely productive. “We think that shaming is a great moral compass, that we can shame people into being better, but that’s not true,” says Brown in a 2020 episode of her Unlocking Us podcast. It’s no wonder last year’s social media campaign to boycott Boohoo failed to have the desired effect of denting its sales figures. This comes despite research showing that young women, Boohoo’s target market, are carrying the sustainable burden.

Unlocking the solution means hearing and listening to these women rather than shouting them down for ‘doing the wrong thing’. There’s no doubt that the lure of an £8 Boohoo dress and a £20 Zara skirt are enough distract young and, let’s face it, older women from their low-carbon attitude, but the draw runs deeper than picking up a bargain. Professor Ben Foyer, department of psychological and behavioural science at LSE, says that budget fashion helps consumers to feel that they have an elevated position socially and financially. “Fast fashion, with its rock bottom prices, can give the illusion to young women on a budget that they are well off simply because, relative to their means, it gives them choice and options to play with,” he explains. “Teenagers tend to follow the behaviours of their friends, because fitting in and belonging to groups is an important part of our social identity.”

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Targeted at 16 to 30 year-olds in their ‘peacock phase’ of identity formation, Boohoo owes its success to influencer partnerships used to continually pump out trends and affordable avenues to identity. With regular 50 per cent off sales and free next day delivery, Perry says inexpensive shopping destination such as Boohoo and ASOS, have democratised fashion. “It’s not something just for wealthy people anymore but it’s for everyone and everyone can afford to buy brand new things.”

Sustainable alternatives stand firmly at a higher price point, giving women with low budgets little incentive or choice about whether to opt for such brands. Herein lies the inherent privilege of women ridiculing other women queuing outside Primark after 2020 lockdown restrictions eased: it not only overlooks the socio-economic pressures that forced them into this position to start with but consistently comes from the people who can afford the price tag attached to, say, a pair of £300 sustainable jeans. “The conversation should not be about blaming people who can’t afford anything else,” Gregory says.

We should instead empower women to view themselves beyond their fashion choices

We should instead empower women to view themselves beyond their fashion choices. “It really does go as deep as what is valuable to us as individuals and how we can create this shift in how we see the world,” explains Gregory. “People always talk about being ‘conscious consumers’, but why do we not see ourselves more as citizens and individuals who are more than what we’re buying?” The burden of sustainable fashion “should not fall on the individual,” she continues. “It’s more about system change and looking at the wider picture.”

street style shopping

Christian Vierig

This doesn’t mean burning consumerist structures to the ground, nor does it mean reverting to pre-industrial lifestyles where objects were acquired for their usefulness. Few want to get rid of fashion entirely; it’s key to communicating our identity. “There’s a distinction between fashion vs style,” says Perry. The continuous pressure to chase trends created by retailers and brands can be remedied by inspiring women to buy a style that works for them rather than buying into a passing fad that doesn’t – after all, it’s the latter that fuels our fast-fashion addiction. If women are empowered, they’ll shop less. Because of how much we are routinely judged on our appearance, women are pressured re-design their aesthetic identity more than men. When new designs infiltrate the marketplace, our wardrobes no longer meet up to today’s trend of the minute, leaving us feeling inadequate as we come head-to-head with our ‘outdated’ wardrobe hours before a big night out. So how can we medicate women’s fashion anxieties?

There’s a distinction between fashion vs style

The first step is self-acceptance – looking at what you already own and wearing your favourite jumper or dress years after you bought it for the simple reason that you like and feel good in it, not because it’s in fashion. “The most sustainable item is the one already in your wardrobe,” says Perry. “The best thing we can do as consumers is keep our existing items in use for longer. We cannot shop our way to sustainability.”

Shame forces us into defence mode and choosing the green alternative doesn’t dismantle our consumerist ideologies, leaving the deeply buried roots of our fast-fashion crisis to remain. If we subtract shame and swap it for empowerment, we might just find we’ve cracked sustainability.

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