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Why Fashion Media Needs To Take Responsibility For The Fast Fashion Crisis

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 years ago | Features

Image: Meryl Streep plays magazine editor Miranda Priestly. Image source.

When M.I.A. became the face of H&M’s self-created World Recycle Week earlier this year, a number of fashion publications jumped all over the ‘positive’ news. But far fewer media outlets discussed the hypocrisy of a recycling initiative backed by a company that produces as many as 52 ‘micro seasons’ per year. That is hundreds of thousands of garments that we don’t really need and that our environment really can’t handle. So why not simply buy less instead of recycling more? Of course, this is not the conversation that most fashion media was having at the time — and that’s the problem.

This mightn’t feel like that big of a deal, given that fashion has long been thought of as a superficial or flippant area of the media. But I would argue that responsible messaging is actually even more important in this context than it is anywhere else. And this is precisely because fashion media is perceived as being unintellectual. In other words, people don’t really expect to see the ‘big issues’ unpacked in objective and morally sound ways when they pick up a copy of Vogue. At least not in the same way they might expect to see this when they pick up a copy of The Australian, for example. Which means that when people (often young, impressionable women) seek to consume fashion media, it is mostly for aspirational purposes. And therein lies its power. Don’t be fooled by the pretty handbags here — fashion media has enormous potential to shape the minds of its audience, in ways even more powerful than most other media.  

This is an issue that’s been explored at length from a body image perspective. For example psychotherapist and Diet Breakers founder Mary Evans Young explains that "together with the media and fashion industry, the powerful diet food industry has artificially created a 'problem' which has resulted in the vast majority of women in Britain and other Western developed countries thinking that they need to diet”. In other words then, the fashion media has been implicit in conditioning young women to believe that they must be thin in order to be ‘fashionable’. As an aspirational domain, they clearly wield a great deal of influence. In the same way that they can shape their audience’s perspective on female beauty though, the fashion media also drives their desire to purchase more and more clothing all the time.

The Australian Financial Review points to the year 2012, for example, when the Duchess of Cambridge wore a pale pink dress on two different occasions. "Kate Wears Same Dress Twice in 11 days!" read the headlines at the time. And while many people would gloss over something like this, it’s important to note the manipulation at play. At its core, this message underscores the ridiculous notion that we should never ‘repeat’ our outfits. A notion largely created and sustained by fast fashion. Because most people can’t afford to buy a wardrobe full of £2000 dresses like Kate, meaning they must turn to fast fashion retailers instead, if they wish to avoid outfit repeating at all costs. Except that all too often these consumers aren’t really aware what those ‘costs’ are. Far from being just material, they also relate to the environment, as well as actual human lives. But why are they unaware of these consequences? Because fashion media conveniently chooses to leave that part out.

When you think about it, perpetuating the fast fashion cycle is good for business, from the perspective of most fashion publications. It can lead to advertising revenue from major brands, while keeping their audience focussed on buying more clothes. And that, after all, is the reason for said advertising in the first place. But this vicious cycle is not only bad for their readers’ self-esteem, it is also bad for the planet. For the garment workers slaving to produce those garments at breakneck pace (lest someone might have to wear the same dress twice) and for the surrounding environment, which is being constantly polluted by the fast fashion cycle.

Like all forms of media, fashion publications should have a certain duty of care to its readers. But without quite the same checks and balances usually imposed on major media outlets, they are able to get away with so much more. Which is only made worse by the fact that their audience is arguably more impressionable — simply because they tend to be consuming fashion media content for inspirational purposes. They look to these magazines for guidance on the latest trends and how to appear ‘fashionable’ this season. But they don’t necessarily consider what’s being left out of the picture.

As we begin to learn more about how the fast fashion system really operates though, readers will hopefully have a better understanding of the conversations left unsaid. And as they do, they will hopefully push back and demand more from their fashion publications too. Because we need the reach and the influence of this media form in order to tell the real story about fast fashion. Not the beautiful, glossed over version these retailers want us to see, but the truth about what’s really at stake when our dresses are designed to be worn just once.

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