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Black Friday and Ethical Consumption

photograph of blurred crowds moving through two-story mall

Every year millions of pieces of clothing get bought, worn, and discarded in a constantly repeating cycle of consumption. Issues of the fashion industry such as its strong negative influences on the environment and its repeated neglect of worker’s rights are by now well known among consumers. Certain retail stores like H&M have started transitioning towards more sustainable production chains. But regardless how much more sustainable materials and higher wages the industry adopts, there remains an ethical concern inherent to the field of fashion—constant consumption. As Robin Givhan of The Washington Post Magazine writes: “Because fashion’s fundamental operating principle rests on planned obsolescence, brands are in a ceaseless cycle of replacement and replenishment. Fashion’s job is to goad you into wanting, needing more.” So, let’s take a moment to discuss consumerism before we rush into stores for the Black Friday sales.

Shopping undeniably makes people happy. Casually browsing through isles of clothes, spending time meandering around malls with friends, or rewarding oneself with a new pair of jeans are just some key elements of a culture that finds clothes-shopping highly enjoyable. Winter, Spring, Black Friday, Christmas, and other kinds of sales, advertisements, and attractive offers keep consumers constantly engaged and active. As people take great pride in their appearance and cultivating a sense of personal style, buying a new piece of clothing is an affordable, guaranteed, and immediate way to make oneself happy. And if we predominantly thrift-shop, buy clothing from sustainable lines and companies, and regularly give away clothes that we do not wear to friends or charities, we might feel we’ve done our part to minimize whatever negative impact might come. Indeed, many believe that as long as you take steps to reduce the harm inflicted on nature and others through your consuming habits, you are an ethical consumer.

But it may be the only truly ethical consumer is the one who consumes as little as possible. Guilt may be the appropriate response to any purchase made that you know you do not need. Even if you buy the most sustainably produced scarf you might feel a sense of discomfort if you know for sure that it is simply going to be hanging in your closet. As such, it may be the excess that is bothersome to our moral intuitions—the over in over-consumption. We are encouraged to be moderate in everything we do, and this may include our buying habits.

Moderation may be a desirable moral goal, but one might still think that the pleasure that shopping and shopping-centered social interactions give to people should not be disregarded in weighing how frequently to engage in consumerist culture. Indeed, shopping brings pleasure to many, but an argument could be made that most shopping-caused pleasure is inferior to pleasure that one may get from other more intellectually or spiritually engaging activities such as reading, meditating, having meaningful conversations with friends, or mastering a new skill. Rather than centering our pleasure and company-seeking activities around fleeting and empty joys of purchasing clothes, perhaps we should aim for the more lasting and sustainable happiness that we gain through activities that are meaningful as well as enjoyable.

In order for us to function normally in our modern day society there are many things we need to buy. However, if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, there are also many things that we buy even though we do not really need them. When we discuss fast fashion in light of its influences on the environment, it is important that we do not skip the conversation about consumerism itself. As Givhan writes: “The simplest, best path to sustainability is not anti-fashion; it’s anti-gorging.” To address the roots of our environmental problems we should not only be asking ourselves what harms our individual purchases will inflict upon the environment but also what kind of a culture we are embracing through our actions. While ethical business practices start with ethical consumers, ethical consumers start by asking themselves the question: Do I really need this?

Inclusion, Artistic Expression, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Photograph of two women in dresses and a man on a stage with a Victoria's Secret pink background

On December 3rd, 2018, Victoria’s Secret put on their annual fashion show. Every year the event attracts millions of viewers. The runway-style presentation features popular entertainers and extravagant props, sets, and costumes. Despite the high profile status of the participants, ratings for the event have declined over the years. In 2018, the event produced the lowest ratings in its more than twenty year history.

The 2018 show faced criticism for its lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion and for comments made by the company’s CEO Ed Razek. When asked about potential inclusion of trangender and plus-size models, Razek said:

“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have …It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we’re the leader.”

Many viewed these comments as highly insensitive.  

A number of fairly high profile people have responded to this conception of “fantasy” in noteworthy ways. In 2015, androgynous model Rain Dove took to social media to make a point about beauty standards. Dove’s physical appearance does not conform to societal expectations—they have been hired to walk on runways for both male and female fashion lines. Dove took pictures of themself in Victoria’s Secret lingerie, some with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models taped on their face and some without to make the point that beauty, and fashion as art, does not have to comport with a binary understanding of gender.

Since 2016, supermodel Ashley Graham, well known for her activism for the cause of diversity in the fashion industry, has taken to social media to express her view that the Victoria Secret fashion show should be more inclusive. This year, she posted photos from her Ashley Graham for Addition Elle lingerie runway show, which featured models of all shapes and sizes. She included the hashtag, seemingly directed at Victoria’s Secret, #BeautyBeyondSize.

To many, it just seems like good common sense for brands to be more inclusive. Most people don’t look like Victoria Secret models. Human beings come in a range of shapes and sizes and express their identities in different ways. It sure seems as if there is good money to be made by appealing to a broader range of people.

If the issue is considered from the perspective of what would be best for society at large, it seems fairly clear that the public good would be advanced by inclusion. Too many people look in the mirror and hate what they see. Our relationship to our bodies is an existential matter. When that relationship is unhealthy, it can feel that we are trapped in a foreign and uncomfortable space. The hope is that this aspect of people’s lives could be transformed for the better if society stops sending the message that people can love themselves only if the body they occupy is shaped in a particular way.

What’s more, it would just be more convenient if the fashion industry were more inclusive. People would be happier if they knew they could reliably walk into a store and purchase attractive clothing that they would be comfortable wearing. As it is, people from a range of diverse groups must shop online or find specialty stores to meet their needs. This strikes many as discriminatory and unnecessary.

That said, even if we acknowledge all of these points, even if we think that change needs to happen, we still need to figure out how the change should happen, and the case isn’t as morally simple as it may appear. Fashion is a form of art. As we’ve seen, some people object to the way it gets made and to the form that it tends to take. If society objects to a form of art, does the obligation fall on the artist to stop making art of that type? Art can be a form of speech. Presumably, that’s part of the issue with the Victoria’s Secret fashion show—it sends the message that these and only these are the kinds of female bodies that are attractive. In his controversial comments, Razek essentially admitted as much—the fashion show is a fantasy and “Angel” bodies are the bodies worth fantasizing about. We might find that message ugly, but does it follow, then, that Razek should change his message or even quit speaking entirely? We rightly value free speech and freedom of artistic expression. What’s more, the ugly part of the message surely isn’t the only part of the message. Even if fashion shows aren’t your cup of tea, even if you find them objectifying, it’s difficult to deny that beauty of a certain type is being celebrated there. Is it wrong to celebrate that beauty because doing so fails to celebrate other forms of beauty?

There are several options open to consumers who would like to see the fashion industry change. First, people interested in fashion can create their own art—art that is geared toward a more diverse clientele or that is committed to celebrating the beauty of a diverse range of bodies. This suggestion is intuitively appealing, but it’s also important to recognize the incredible difficulty a startup fashion line would have competing with a fashion giant like Victoria’s Secret. Industries and institutions engage in gatekeeping. Those with the power have little interest in sharing it when it doesn’t satisfy their interests to do so. Humans are not unlike other animals in the sense that we engage in sexual competition for mates. We use fashion, in part, to fabricate peacock feathers as a sexual display to potential mates. The fashion industry has tremendous power as the puppeteers guiding the motions of important human interactions. The power players are unlikely to hand over the strings to new people with subversive ideas about how or even why the puppets should move. That said, no artist or set of artists could advance an alternative message if no one tried.

Another, more accessible approach is for consumers to speak with their wallets. Some existing and successful companies are tuning into the fact that there is a not small customer base that would like to see fashion change dramatically. Consumers of all shapes, sizes, and presentations can buy fashion from companies that share their values.

Dress Fresh to Impress: Hip-Hop’s Impact Through Fashion

Image of a hat, eye patch, tennis shoes, gold necklace, and top hat displayed in glass case

Hip-hop is often criticized for its content. Listeners hear vulgar lyrics and songs dedicated to violence and condemn the music genre. Even worse, a lot of today’s hip-hop has an overall theme about drug use. However, the negative motifs presented in hip-hop are often overrepresented in the music genre, diminishing its more positive aspects. What’s more, the positive attributes of hip-hop are not just rooted in the music itself. Hip-hop is an influential genre that has formed a complete sub-culture around fashion. Continue reading “Dress Fresh to Impress: Hip-Hop’s Impact Through Fashion”

The Fashion Industry’s New Target Market

Italian fashion company Dolce & Gabbana recently released a new line of clothing containing hijabs and abayas. People around the world who follow the fashion industry were excited about the new line, which appears to be championing inclusiveness. Muslim women have been buying high-end fashion for years – most of which either stays in closets, or is only worn under abayas – and the brand’s new line appears to be in response to the general lack of fashionable options for Muslim women that can be worn out. Other brands, such as DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger, have also expanded their collections to include pieces that appeal to the female Muslim market. The Muslim market is lucrative, as many women from oil-rich countries shop for expensive, high-end clothing, primarily shoes and handbags. This line is supposed to give more options for expression beyond shoes and bags. Forbes said that Dolce & Gabbana’s move was their “smartest move in years” from a business perspective. Numerous lines have come to set up stores in Dubai, which even hosted its first fashion week this year. Since the sociopolitical culture is currently dangerous for women, Dolce & Gabbana’s new release was considered a move toward demonstrating the potential for harmony between Muslim and Western societies.

Continue reading “The Fashion Industry’s New Target Market”