Social justice and fashion are directly intertwined, both in the statements that are made on the runway and the daily operational practices that fashion industries engage in. When one thinks of fashion, the most immediate thought is the clothes that are made and presented. However, these clothes are only the cover of the story. When we open the book, we are able to find the hidden layers and chapters that bring to light the social and environmental justice issues surrounding the manufacture, sale, and disposal of clothing within the fashion industry.
It is a well-known fact that the fashion industry is one of the top contributors to pollution on the planet. From the toxic chemicals that are used to dye textiles to the sheer amount of water and harmful pesticides that are used to produce cotton, the manufacturing processes of clothing have a long way to go before the industry can truly call itself sustainable. However, the investigation on the part of consumers must not stop there. The sheer amount of textile that enters the waste stream on the part of both manufacturers and consumers produces a larger obstacle of waste and pollution that fashion companies must overcome. Brands are slowly giving more attention to and attempting to incorporate sustainable practices within their facilities, and what we can do as consumers is to support the efforts of these brands. By allocating our spending to companies that are making strides towards being sustainable, we can increase the demand for sustainable clothing, and consequently encourage a rise in more fashion brands that are fully sustainable.
The fashion industry has run into many problems surrounding controversial representations of race, culture, and appropriation. Fashion has long struggled with walking the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, approaching such topics in an awkward way that is outdated and insensitive. There is a clear distinction that must be made between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to the selection of certain aspects of a culture for a trend while trivializing and disregarding the significance of its original purpose. That is, taking without giving credit. Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, occurs when a culture is honored and respected and explored in order to gain further knowledge and understanding. One way that consumers can help combat the short-sighted proliferation of culturally offensive fashion is by utilizing the platforms we have, most notably social media, to call out these brands and hold them accountable for their actions by bringing these incidents into the public awareness.
The issues surrounding fast fashion are directly interwoven with the issues concerning sustainability in the fashion industry. Fast fashion is both an environmental and social justice crisis, as it is detrimental to the health of both the people and the planet. The short life cycle given to each piece of clothing that enters the consumer stream hides its devastating and lasting contributions to pollution of the planet. From the water-intensive cotton that is used to create the fabrics (not to mention the extensive pesticides that are used in the growth of these crops) to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to poor working conditions and exploitation of workers, to the exponential increase in the tons of textile waste in landfills, the risks and consequences associated with fast fashion are not at all worth the lowered economic costs of clothing.
Ethical labor practices
Ethical labor practices have always been in jeopardy within the fashion industry, especially with the increased prominence of the global economy and the international reach of fashion companies. The exploitation of workers, particularly those in second and third world countries, has been further exacerbated as a negative externality of the rise of fast fashion. The labor issues present within the fashion industry are extensive, from poor working conditions to overworked, underage, and underpaid employees who come from poverty-stricken economies. Additionally, consumers should pay attention to and hold accountable companies that rely on the use of forced and trafficked labor to engage in their manufacturing and textile disposal processes.
Body image/body positivity
Body image is defined in terms of who and what in society is responsible for influencing the way in which we think about our bodies. One of the main attributes is the media — particularly with the rise of the role that social media plays in our everyday lives, our bodies are now held to a certain standard of what is ideal. That is, the media influences the mentality with which we approach our body and how to care for it properly. There are different standards of beauty that are associated with different cultures, ages, genders, and histories, and all of this points to the necessity of understanding our bodies as a social construction. As such, the only true measure we have for evaluating our bodies is how healthy we are and how healthy the images of our bodies are. Our goal within the fashion industry should not be to reinforce the shallow notion of what an ideal, unreachable standard of a body is by attempting to overshadow and erase the beautiful uniqueness of each individual. Rather, we must move towards reshaping the industry into one that encourages all individuals to be accepting of themselves and make choices that will help them maintain healthy bodies and body images.
There are many issues of social justice within the fashion industry that must be discussed and brought to light. The above-discussed issues are meant to serve as a starting point for consumers to become more engaged in these processes of investigation towards companies. There is much more to be seen by looking beneath the surface of these massive mountains of clothing that compose our fashion industry — namely in terms of environmental and social justice.