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Activism Within the Fashion Industry

Activism is commonly defined as an act of protest to bring political change. Meetups are ever-present and only amplified in the past years. People have been coming together to voice their concerns about greenhouse emissions, climate change, as well as racial issues.

During the pandemic, a massive protest took over America. The Black Lives Matter movement was induced by years of systemic oppression and amplified by the unjust murder of George Flloyd. Many were coming together to show support for a change in the system, promoting and protecting Black Americans’ rights.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
—Frederick Douglass

These protests have also demanded acts from fashion brands. In response to this, Nike has pledged to invest $40 million in the next four years to support Black communities in the US. In addition, Nike released a video campaign titled For once, Don’t do it. A clear contrast to their famous logo, Just Do It. This video has accumulated a little over 1 million views since its premiere.

“We will do and invest more to uphold longstanding commitment in supporting the Black community and partnering with world-class organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice, and greater access to education.”

Even more notably, Pyer Moss had consecutively featured their stance in the matter even before the BLM movement last year in 2020. The brand has been raising awareness about the general issues since 2015, followed by their 2016 F/W and S/S collection release. In addition, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, released They Have Names T-shirt to list the names of victims of police brutality.

On the other side of the coin, consumers were quick to catch the performative activism of many fast-fashion brands. But, what is performative activism, and why is it so important to understand?

Performative activism is an act without any actual action. Melina Abdullah, as quoted from Mashable, “Performative activism is really about getting the so-called glory of activism without having to pay any price.” The quote alone should wake us up from the facade that many brands are trying to sell us while making profits by exploiting minorities.

An example of performative activism was #blackouttuesday. #blackouttuesday was a form of solidarity and allyship towards the cause by posting a black square on Instagram for those unfamiliar. However, this trend was condemned by many for its bare minimum actions. Showing support during times of duress is commendable but lacks its weight if not followed by any other action.

(P.S. Yes, performative activism not only links to Black Lives Matter. However, performative activism has been the ‘it’ word during the Black Lives Matter movement early-2020.)

Fashion Round Table called out the template Instagram text post many fast-fashion brands were uploading. These posts highlight how each brand is reflecting that they “need to do better.” while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that they are far from doing ‘okay.’

To be able to do okay, we first need to know how fashion history started. Melissa Watt writes, “the fashion industry as we know it was founded on colonialism and slavery.” Europeans have a long account of searching far and wide through Asia, Africa, and South America for cheap labor. Cotton production in the 1800s perpetuated and continued slavery within American cotton plantations. Today, fast fashion has also promoted this issue by underpaying its workers in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Daily Mail reports that Boohoo has been working with a Leicester sweatshop that pays its workers £4/hour, half of the area’s minimum wage of £8/hour. “People who come from India or Bulgarian don’t have money, they don’t speak English but they need money to put food in their bellies. The starting point is £4 or £5, then we train them and they get more,” quoting the owner of the sweatshop from the Daily Mail article. No matter the justification given by the owner of the sweatshop, these wages exploit immigrant workers to work more.

All this elucidation should make us realize why posting a heartfelt Instagram text post is devastatingly far from enough.

Influential brands within the fashion industry need to take accountability for their actions. Implementation of new regulations internally and externally should follow awareness of the issue. We, as customers, need to make it clear to these brands that what we want is representation and ethical transparency.

We need to start demanding more from the brands we pay. We, as consumers, have the heavier weight in this equation. Brands will pay attention to the noise we make, so we need to be noisy. Start asking the brands for their transparency through their Instagram posts, interact with the brands through Twitter, and ask for their credibility through e-mails. Educate ourselves about these issues to ensure that everyone is taking responsibility for their actions.

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