Performative activism can’t change the fast fashion industry

By Stephanie Wallace

People love to feel like they are doing some noble thing for the greater good while in reality, they are accomplishing the bare minimum. This usually takes place through “performative activism,”  the idea that pretending to do something is better than doing nothing. 

Sustainable fashion has become a recent example of this trend. Thrifting has gone from an easy way to save money to a status symbol for activism. While more people are learning about how harmful clothing production can be, there have been large miscommunications about how to solve the problem.

Last October, a group of protestors disrupted a Louis Vuitton runway show by walking along the runway with the models, most notably a woman who jumped on the runway holding a sign that said “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION.” It’s fair to say that high-end fashion brands contribute to a long-standing issue in classist consumption. They dictate fashion trends in all spheres yet aren’t affordable to most. However, fighting high-end fashion companies such as Chanel and Versace is not the way to go about slowing down the environmental impacts that fashion has.

People have higher expectations for luxury brands than they do for fast fashion. Due to public image and the higher standards their companies are held to, luxury brands tend to be more conscientious about their impact on the environment, as well as society. 

However, fast fashion brands such as Zara and Forever 21, who use mass production to create products, are the companies that should be receiving criticism for their environmental impact. E-commerce brands such as Shein and Fashion Nova are in the same boat and should also be addressed when it comes to holding brands accountable for their production processes. 

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Fast fashion gained popularity due to the inexpensive prices of their products and the large array of options they offer. These companies also promote themselves heavily on social media platforms, making them even more noticable and enticing. Their social media presence––being the most talked-about brands on TikTok and YouTube––leads consumers to these fast-fashion retailers, making them the most visited fashion and apparel sites in the world, according to the web analytics platform Similarweb. 

When calling for sustainable fashion, we must take into consideration that it is the clothes we are most likely to consume that contribute a considerable amount to the problem. 

Reuters reported that Shein has yet to disclose information about the working conditions of its factory employees to the British government, which the retailer is required to do under U.K. law. Shein had also previously falsely stated that its factories were certified by international labor standard bodies, according to Reuters. However, because they have become such an influential company, it’s easy for that to get swept under the rug.

Protesting fast fashion means discussing the layers of class and interconnectedness. After all, those living on normal paychecks benefit from a clothing outlet where there are many different options every few weeks. This gives people the financial power to replace clothes as soon as they are bought. Instead of waiting until a shirt is too small or old, stores like H&M make it easier to simply buy a new clothing item instead of replacing an old one. 

If we are to create tangible change, we need to do it in a way that benefits those that consume fast and cheap clothing. That mostly starts with brands targeted towards women, like Shein, seeing as more than 70 percent of the world’s poorest people are women.

The good news is that there is a growing general knowledge of the fact that the fashion industry has to change for the betterment of the environment and human rights. However, there is more to it than buying a second-hand item. 

With the increase in thrifting, two problems have risen. The first one being that thrift shops such as Goodwill have increased their prices making it harder for low-income people to afford clothing from stores they could rely on for cheap style options, which can lead to an increase of shopping at Shein or Fashion Nova as an alternative. Secondly, more people are donating their clothes, and oftentimes these clothes don’t get sold and are thrown away. 

The real solution, and one that is much more inconvenient, is working with politicians in order to create laws that hold fashion companies accountable, however, this is necessary. Placing an emphasis on companies’ impacts on climate change as well as humanitarian rights are ways to make strong impacts on the fashion industry.