Do fashion influencers have an obligation to only promote ethical brands?
TL;DR: it’s complicated, but they sure do.
Influencer marketing is a fairly recent phenomenon, the ins and outs of which are evolving daily. Being a new form of advertising, there are plenty of unregulated areas and kinks yet to be ironed out. What is certain, however, is that influencers form the foundation of social media. It’s hardly uncommon for businesses to team up with popular social media users to tout products and messages to their considerable followings, which in turn translates to sales.
Since the dawn of Instagram, we’ve watched as familiar faces spruik skinny teas (read: laxatives made appealing by diet culture), teeth whitening products, hair-growth gummies, and other products designed to help us normies attain ‘perfection’. Influencers engender controversy daily as the list of endorsements goes on, with many brands, products and services causing detriment to consumers, all in the name of #sponcon.
Instagram is a haven for fashion marketing, as influencers don the latest styles to keep the trend cycle in overdrive. Consumers are three times more likely to follow an influencer on social media than they are to follow a brand, meaning the fashion marketing opportunity is plain as day. We, the influenced, adore influencers’ gorgeously aspirational lives, and human nature dictates that we want to imitate their manner and style. If our favourite influencer wears a $2 top, we just need to have that $2 top.
Fashion’s environmental impact is substantial, as more than 500 million kilograms of unwanted clothing ends up in Australian landfill annually. Fast fashion brands pop up by the minute, offering cheap but trendy garments to be worn once and discarded. Clothing can take centuries to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases in the process.
The typical lifecycle of a fashion product depletes natural resources, exploits garment workers, produces carbon emissions, and contributes to climate change. This lifecycle is accelerated by fast fashion companies with more of an interest in churning out the latest trends over reducing their environmental impact. Such elements have secured the fashion industry as one of the largest polluters, sitting comfortably beside energy and agriculture.
Influencing is an ethical minefield – balancing sustainability with consumerism with what is trendy with your own personal values is no small feat. Realistically, no individual can do it all, but that should not be an excuse to do nothing at all. (Here we could argue that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but that’s a hefty topic for another day.)
Knowing where to draw the ethical line is difficult, but when it comes to endorsing the fastest of fast fashion (i.e. Shein, Zaful, Wish, Fashion Nova, Boohoo, AliExpress, Nasty Gal, Pretty Little Thing, the list goes on) the answer seems like a no brainer.
Whether they like it or not, an influencer has the capacity to influence their audience. They have become arbiters of what is good and right and true, and therefore need to have consideration for things other than a generous pay packet. Fashion influencers must understand that they have a moral obligation to do the right thing by their followers, being the people who made them influential to begin with.
Even if fashion influencers only serve as the middle man between a company and their target audience, they have a responsibility to be careful about what they promote. They have a responsibility to do their due diligence about brand practices before they hype a new label. They have a responsibility to not take advantage of their young, vulnerable or impressionable audiences in the name of money or the latest style. They have a responsibility to think twice about the content they publish and the companies they support.
What can we do about it?
If you’re an influencer, think critically when presented with a brand partnership. Ask yourself whether the product may harm your audience, by way of a damaging message or exploitative manufacturing practices earlier in the supply chain. Ask yourself whether telling your followers to buy the $2 top you wore once and then threw away is worth the harm to the planet.
Otherwise, unfollow the influencers who contradict your own ethics and support those who are doing what they can to live ethically and sustainably.
Only make meaningful fashion purchases. Create a capsule wardrobe, shop exclusively second-hand, or support local designers and manufacturers. Only buy what you need, and recycle wherever you can.