Fashion Communications in the Climate, Ecological and Social Emergency

By Olivia Pinnock

How can fashion media and communications tackle the climate emergency? Fashion Declares hosted a July webinar to address just this. Fashion Declares founder Safia Minney was joined by photographer Dvora, commentator on fashion and identity Caryn Franklin, co-founder of Vestiaire Collective Fanny Moizant and group CEO of Futerra Lucy Shea to tackle the topic.

Safia opened with an overview of the global climate crisis. She highlighted how the planet is currently headed towards a three degree rise in temperature, despite climate pledges, which will lead to further biodiversity loss, lack of food and water security, more frequent and extreme weather patterns and uninhabitable land.

“What we’re needing to address in fashion communications and creating a new narrative, is how we rapidly change mindsets, behaviours, culture and promote a shift to a low carbon lifestyle.” Safia said. She recommended two books to help people better understand how to lower their carbon footprint: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee and The 1.5 Degree Lifestyle by Lloyd Alter.

Speaking to fashion communications specifically, Safia summarised the findings of a UN report published last November which addressed how the sector must evolve to meet sustainability targets. The report says: “Some of the current means of communicating will need to be eradicated to deliver on the climate agenda. This includes messages tied to overconsumption or shopping as reward, breaking markdown cycles, and not commodifying issues like the climate crisis.”

The webinar was then handed over to the four expert speakers to share their thoughts:

Dvora, photographer

Dvora’s background is fashion and street style photography and she loved shooting a diversity of people wearing unusual clothing, particularly vintage. She built her campaigning voice through her blog and went on to work for major magazines. She says she saw how the “democratisation of fashion”, spurred by the blogging movement in the 2000s, was quickly replaced by the old system again when working with clients.

“At the start, the brief was not to shoot people wearing vintage… with time, the brief came to include shooting editors as well and with further time it became not democratic anymore as it was very obvious that all the influencers were from privileged backgrounds.”   

As she became increasingly uncomfortable that her work was fuelling fast fashion, she decided to engage with the sustainable fashion movement.

“I knew I wanted to use my photography to raise the voices of the women who were telling this story [of the social and environmental change needed in fashion],” she told attendees.

She is currently working on a project to photograph 80 changemakers in fashion (a reflection of the 80% of garment workers who are women) which will be turned into an exhibition.

She concluded by saying that while diversity among models in fashion has improved, there is still a way to go yet.

“Recently, Fashion Declares was invited to Northern Fashion Week… it was great to see that there was more diversity in the casting for the shows. However, standing backstage, I realised, as an older person, I wasn’t represented, and neither were people with bigger bodies. I also left wondering about the origins of the clothing. I didn’t feel that was being talked about.”

Diversity of photographers is also important and she recommended following @blackwomenphotographers on Instagram as good way to discover talent.  

Dvora Photography

Caryn Franklin, fashion and identity commentator

As well as a long-established career in fashion media, Caryn has an MSc in Applied Psychology and shared a presentation on tackling mindsets in fashion.

“Clothes have been a huge mental health support for women. There is a deluge of studies to show that women are groomed into body surveillance and self-objectification because of our fashion imagery and media imagery,” she said. “Young women see garments as tools for self-expression and self-esteem, as well as an opportunity for some small experience of power.” We must acknowledge this at the same time we begin dialogue on new ways.

Fast fashion has allowed for instant gratification and for buying clothes as fun and leisure. It has also led to consumers telling themselves, what Franklin calls “comforting falsehoods”. Consumers justify purchases with arguments that fast fashion stimulates the economy and gives everyone access to the latest fashion.

Caryn suggests three ways that fashion communication can create new drives, motivations and perceptions:

– Individual experience: by framing the  making of  better environmental choices and reduced consumption as good for wellbeing. Communicators should emphasise how individual purchasing choices can help us take ownership of something: in this instance climate crisis and feel that we’re doing something about it as well as bolstering our mental health and reducing anxiety levels.

– Nostalgia: young consumers are particularly interested in styles of the past, partly driven by a longing for a simpler time. Encouraging this desire for a slower pace of life, can help lead to slower fashion choices.

– Cultural messaging opportunities: Framing the current instant gratification, fashion addiction culture as not cool. 

She concluded that activism must not only target consumers and corporations but also educational institutions who need to embed sustainability into all fashion modules (not just stand alone single units in a creative’s education) to better serve the needs of the future.  

Caryn Franklin

Fanny Moizant, co-founder of Vestiaire Collective

Vestiaire Collective is an online marketplace for secondhand luxury fashion. Fanny told the webinar in a pre-recorded video: “The inception of Vestiaire was looking at our industry and understanding that it has dramatically changed from the impact of fast fashion. That has led to a consumer that is completely drugged by novelty. A consumer that was willing to buy more and more to have the latest trend, the latest outfit, to show themselves with a new outfit on social media.”

Her challenge with building Vestiaire Collective was to create something that would be a solution to this but was also trustworthy and inspiring. “We are fashion lovers that treasure the craftsmanship and creativity in our industry and we wanted to support fashion in that respect and not just be criticising and looking down on it,” she explained.

Fanny shared some insights from Vestiaire Collective’s users to show how they are making a difference:

  • 85% of pre-loved buyers do so to reduce consumption by trading up to buy fewer, better quality items
  • 70% of items bought on Vestiaire Collective replace a first-hand purchase
  • 50% of sellers would not have resold their item if they hadn’t had access to Vestiaire
  • Items bought on Vestiaire save on 90% of the environmental cost of the item

Lucy Shea, group CEO of Futerra

“We work in a crappy industry but it has such power and potential and influence over us as consumers,” Lucy said in the introduction of her talk.

Futerra is a sustainability strategy and creative agency with offices in London, New York and Stockholm. She said what has driven Futerra and what has worked with clients is to “start where people are and make it fun, if you want it done!”     

She shared the work the agency did with Tommy Hilfiger on its “make it possible” campaign which came out of the brand’s mission to “welcome everyone and waste nothing”. Lucy said: “What this strategy was also designed to do was position Tommy Hilfiger as a modern and relevant brand which was where it was shooting for as a business. What they realised was that sustainability could give the ‘proof points’ and ‘reasons to believe’ for it to be seen as a more modern, more diverse, less waspy American brand.”

Her closing thought was one of hope in the work that’s being done to create behaviour change. “I think we’re going to see an opportunity for progressive and purposeful brands to really lean into helping their consumer be the hero, take control of their lifestyle [and] feel amazing about it.”   

Closing thoughts

To end, Safia invited each of the three speakers who were present live during the webinar to share some final thoughts on what fashion communication needs to do to tackle the climate emergency.

Dvora: “Going forward, for creating new ways of being and thinking, we have to bring everyone along on an equal basis. The way forward has to be one of equality for all people.” 

Caryn: “My feeling is being able to talk about the importance of sustainability for our mental health. As we move forward into what are quite frightening visions, which are on our doorstep now, our young must be feeling really, really powerless and concerned.

“When we look at our politicians, there are something like 2% of politicians under 30 who are really properly thinking about the future and the needs of our young. The young are not represented.

“We’ve got to recognise that experience is not the only metric for leadership and that so many of our leaders are embroiled in sorting out their last comfortable 10-15 years on the planet and they’re not interested in what happens beyond that. We have a global leadership full of incompetent, macho-swaggering leaders concerned with their own self-regard and they’re not collaborative, they’re not thinking about the future. The ageism that we have in dominant culture is that young people’s views don’t matter. Which isn’t what we’re saying here.”  

Lucy: “To build on that, it’s quite distasteful that, certainly in the comms industry, it is the establishment still running it and a very kicking-and-screaming, recent recognition on the idea that comms needs to take accountability for its emissions from influence rather than just its footprint. Advertising agencies have been working very hard to note their carbon footprint while radically ignoring what they do for their clients which is where the true impact lies.

“We need more honesty and more transparency; I know it’s something that’s been thumbed for a while but we really do.

“This fatalism that we’re seeing among the young, the belief that it’s too late. That goes across all ages but particularly, and unsurprisingly the young, is in my view a bigger issue than even climate change. Because we can solve climate change, it’s a question of mitigation, adaption, but solving that feeling of a lack of agency, fatalism, ‘it’s too late’, is the biggest problem on our hands.”