The conversation surrounding fast fashion has gone in and out of style over the past few years. Unlike most ethical debates, this is one that influencers are often wary of being involved in. Despite ongoing talks about the importance of public health, combating climate change and racial inequality, (all issues that fast fashion affects) the social justice warriors of the internet are unusually silent when it comes to this issue.
For those of us who care deeply about the intersection of fashion and it’s environmental and societal impact, it’s deeply discouraging that so many influencers not only refuse to speak out against fast fashion, but continue to promote it. The reality is, fast fashion companies exploit factory workers. The fashion industry emits more carbon every year than international flights and maritime shipping combined. There are undoubtedly influencers speaking up about these issues, but they pale in comparison to those who ignore it.
I’ve been a blogger for 9 years, and for the last several years I have been actively trying to educate myself about this issue and promote only brands that align with my morals. This hasn’t been easy, and has required a lot of strategy. Being a Rent the Runway ambassador has definitely helped satisfy my need to shop by allowing me to rent statement pieces I’d normally buy and wear once.
Living in NYC and being a straight-sized person has allowed me access to the best vintage shops imaginable. Over the last three years, I have transitioned into someone who almost exclusively shops locally, luxury, or secondhand. Yet, this is still something I struggle with often, particularly when it comes to recommendations for my followers who may not have the same income or body type that I have.
To understand why fashion influencers are outspoken about many social issues and yet ignore the area in which they are most accountable, you must first understand why they promote fast fashion in the first place.
Influencers want to appeal to a younger audience
While influencers are expected to promote good behavior, they are also encouraged not to alienate followers with lower budgets than their own. This is why, despite it being far below her price range, Chriselle Lim did a (now deleted) campaign recently with Shein.
Why would someone who has dubbed herself “your rich mom” on TikTok be promoting one of the most problematic fast-fashion companies in existence? Possibly to offset the Fendi and Max Mara luxury campaigns in a way that her younger following can relate to (30% of her following is under 25.) It’s hard to blame her for wanting to serve them, but it’s also difficult to understand why someone who is so outspoken about social issues is willing to partner with a brand that underpays and exploits their workers.
Influencers make money from affiliate links
My favorite influencer, Jacey Duprie, is constantly promoting Amazon on Instagram, and I cannot blame her for it. I could write a book on all the issues I have with Jeff Bezos, who is on track to be the world’s first trillionaire, but I don’t judge her for the partnership.
People love shopping on Amazon. The shipping speed is incredible and the prices are almost always lower than anywhere else. If you factor in the unemployment rate in the US and the growing wealth gap in our country, it can come across classist to criticize those who shop there.
They also have an excellent creator program that allows influencers to make money. Business Insider wrote a great piece on how much money there is to be made through Amazon affiliate links and quite frankly– it’s a LOT. Seeing as Jacey’s livelihood as an influencer relies on affiliate link revenue, I am disappointed by it, but I do understand.
Influencers want to be size inclusive!
If you’re someone who wears standard sizes, you probably don’t think about the lack of size inclusion by contemporary or sustainable brands. This isn’t the case for bloggers who, for the most part, are always on a mission to serve all their followers (and this requires size inclusivity.)
As someone who often wears the largest standard size a store has to offer, I often feel guilty promoting clothes I know anyone even slightly bigger than myself can’t wear. Alternatively, fast fashion brands like Forever21, Boohoo and American Eagle are some of the most size inclusive brands available with the best selection for plus sized women. Everyone needs to get dressed, and when you wear a size 14– shopping slow fashion gets really challenging. Influencers often have to make concessions about the quality of a brand they are sharing in order to serve followers who wear extended sizes.
Influencers don’t want to be called out for their privilege
Despite the fact that so many influencers rose to fame as a result of having an aspirational wardrobe and lifestyle, they are still expected to be “relatable.” Take COVID-19 for example. Influencers who had the means to leave NYC during the peak of the pandemic were criticized for weeks in the media.
One of the most famous people to leave was Arielle Charnas, and it made a huge impact on her brand; so much so that she had to postpone the re-launch of Something Navy (previously a Nordstrom collab, now D2C.) Arielle recently acknowledged her privilege in an interview with Glossy, but given the fact that her Instagram account with 1.3 million followers has been private for months, it’s safe to assume she’s still afraid of her critics. If one thing is for certain, influencers are always trying to avoid a tearful apology video.
The good news? Something Navy’s CEO Matt Scanlan has made it clear that they have a high standard for their manufacturing; including a living wage, good working conditions and a cap on carbon emissions and chemical usage. Considering Something Navy’s Nordstrom collaboration was notorious for being low-quality, this is probably the only thing that can truly save Arielle’s image.
It’s hard to keep track of which brands are “good” and “bad”
For as long as I’ve been a conscious shopper, I’ve had a running list of “bad” companies that I should avoid shopping at. Sometimes this list feels overwhelming, and the spectrum of how bad a company is can be incredibly vast. Even if a brand is expensive, that doesn’t automatically mean that the clothes they produce were made ethically. Influencers likely avoid taking a hard-line stance on fast fashion because the line is blurry and it requires a significant and ongoing commitment to research
The further you look into fast fashion, the more complex the issue gets, for influencers and for consumers, because the ultimate answer is to buy less clothing. When your profession as a fashion influencer depends on brand partnerships and affiliate links, it seems to make silence the best strategy for success. But how long can we live with that?
For the fashion industry, 2020 is a moment of reckoning as retail suffers, fashion weeks fizzle and traditional collection cycles wane. Perhaps a silver lining of this tumultuous year will be an acceleration of true sustainable fashion. I’m eager to see how influencers and brands will partner to make this happen.