The American University of Paris hosted a panel on Ethical Fashion on September 22, 2011. The panel was entitled “Communication of Social and Environmental Responsibility in Global Fashion Supply Routes”. I was invited as one of the experts to speak to students and faculty about our relationship to animals within a fashion context, and the event was also open to the public. Special thanks to Robin Lee for connecting me to this event!
The panel was quite diverse when it came to the roles each of us played in the fashion industry, from working with huge companies’ overseas factory workers, to having a vertically integrated small-scale boutique, to developing marketing and PR strategies and formulating the desirability surrounding ethical fashion, to questioning the appropriation of animal identities and the use of animal body parts. It was an honor to share the stage with other thinkers who truly want to do good by the people, animals and ecosystems affected by fashion.
One of the major obstacles we have, moving forward with an “ethical fashion” agenda, is severe ideological splintering and the lack of an articulated or visionary goal. Many current concepts and solutions tackle systemic effects of cheap-fast-fashion production and a globalized industrial model, but few address core problems from a social sciences perspective.
One audience member, in understandable exasperation, intensely listed from her notes a slew of social problems associated with mainstream fashion ideals – from damaging and unobtainable body images to power hierarchies generally reinforced by access to luxury, to the basic paradox of sustainability’s need for durability compared to throw-away fashion’s ever-changing seasonal collections. The woman then asked, “Do we need ‘fashion’ at all?”. Without a social sciences approach to fashion, I tend to agree with her. As with all art, if you remove the social context, you are left simply with decoration or embellishment.
One of the grand illusions of mainstream fashion is the appearance of a linear evolution based in natural cycles. Each season we are brought a new collection of looks from thousands of designers. Despite the elegance and seamlessness of the presentations, this rapid change is no easy task. It is as resource and energy intensive as any other major industry. As animals, we have evolved with seasonal timetables etched in our brains from millions of years of a repeated rotation around the sun. The changing of collections from season to season tends to mimic nature, which naturalizes the otherwise unnatural pace and energy that goes into this type of garment production. What’s worse is that the general public, fashion consumers, and many of the designers themselves see this continual change as an active evolution heading toward utopia. We are led to believe that fashion is evolving toward something better, something that offers a solution or closure to our current society. But this transcends into the production of faith-based identities, as opposed to critical social identities and garment production. The failure is that utopia remains but a mirage in the hazy distance, and the fashion industry is running toward it on a treadmill.
It’s imperative, if we’re to achieve sustainable fashion, to include the critical discourse of social sciences. Specifically the discourse of meaning, of personal, tribal, cultural and societal identities and values as communicated through dress and adornment (as opposed to just the visual histories of periods of dress and methodologies of production).
One of the best places to begin is with a visionary response to the countless disconnects and contradictions regarding our physical and symbolic relationships to non-human animals that are insidious in the modern fashion industry. From tackling the largest number of the worst environmental problems like livestock’s catastrophic impact on climate change, to horrifying ethical atrocities in viewing animals used for leather, fur, feather, wool and silk production as mere automatons and units-of-production, addressing our dependance upon the exploitation and oppression of non-human animals as the primary way of showcasing sexuality, power, wealth and worth, will have dramatic change-making effects on the global fashion industry. This is without even beginning to consider the enormous toll animal-based industries like leather-tanning take on human beings.
There is much to learn from the social history of dress about the impacts fashion has had on certain species, individuals and entire ecosystems – from the Millinery’s bird extinctions to the agonizing plight of farmed foxes in Europe, China, and elsewhere, to the introduction of invasive species like nutria by fur traders (now being spun as “ethical” fur).
Whether or not the questioning audience member intended to engage in communication through her visual appearance, being so opposed to the concept of fashion as she was, she was actively participating in the visual dialect of fashion by simply choosing a tee shirt and denim and wearing her hair down. It is my opinion that before social, environmental, and animal activists and advocates throw out the baby with the bathwater, we should consider what a powerful tool the visual dialect of fashion is, and learn to master it in order to maximize leverage for positive change.
Mo Tomaney, PANEL CHAIR
Senior Research Fellow in ETHICAL AND SUSTAINABLE FASHION at Central St. Martins (UAL) and Professor of ETHICAL FASHION for the MAGC program, Fashion Communication at AUP.
Launched THE DISCERNING BRUTE in 2008 as a resource for “Fashion, Food & Etiquette for the Ethically Handsome Man”, followed by PINNACLE, and anti-fur fashion initiative, and BraveGentleMan.com, an online ethical men’s store.
Professor Efrat Tseëlon is a cultural theorist who joined the University of Leeds school of design as chair of fashion theory in 2007. She is the editor of Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty journal. Prof Tseëlon’s research interests are in a reflexive examination of concrete cultural practices and material artefacts in the areas of clothing and appearance – with a dual focus on clothes (visual identities) and bodies (embodied, marginal and deviant identities).
Media Relations and Communications Manager at the ETHICAL TRADING INITIATIVE where she raises awareness about ethical trade among businesses, the media and other key stakeholders.
Sarah Van Aken
C.E.O and Founder of S.V.A. HOLDINGS CORPORATION: an ethical & vertically integrated private label apparel business located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Founded the INNOVATIVE FASHION COUNCIL (IFCSF) in 2007, a non-profit trade council, devoted to the development of a sustainable fashion industry.
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