Walking the Talk?
Merchandising, Social Movements, and the Viral Rise of Fashion’s Call to Vote
Written by Hanna Cody & Apala Guhathakurta
Illustration By Kirk Johnson
When fashion historians look back on the biggest trend of the Fall 2020 season, there is a good chance they will be able to sum it up in one word: VOTE.
This is certainly not the first time brands have taken up a voice and created merchandise to promote social causes, with movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and LGBTQIA+ rights all working closely with human rights groups to leverage clothing as one way to generate financial support and awareness. These merchandise campaigns also help create a sense of community and solidarity, perhaps even as a way for individuals to wear their hearts on their sleeves — quite literally.
In recent weeks, the surge in products created to promote engagement around the 2020 U.S. presidential election - from Michelle Obama’s VOTE necklace and the Democratic National Convention to Patagonia’s somewhat controversial clothing tags - have made the efficacy of fashion-based cause marketing all the more relevant.
When it comes to questioning whether fashion-based social messaging causes more harm than good, it is not unreasonable to wonder if it is ethical for companies to commodify messaging around human rights or civic duty, especially depending upon who is on the receiving end of product revenue.
While a shirt promoting voting may be harmless at face value, are its positive impacts canceled out if that same shirt is produced by a company that suppresses worker’s voices by preventing its employees from engaging in collective bargaining?
This irony was the primary subject of #WhoMadeMyPrideMerch - a campaign to raise awareness of companies manufacturing Pride Month merchandise in countries where members of the LGBTQIA+ community are criminalized or subjected to heightened rates of discrimination and violence. The same can be said of ‘feminist’ merchandise that inherently exploits female workers who make up the bulk of fashion’s global workforce. Even if a brand donates a portion of its proceeds to a non-profit organization, concerns give consumers pause regarding whether it is better to donate directly to those non-profits rather than run the risk of funding potentially abusive garment supply chains.
When contemplating purchasing one of these campaign-supporting items, it may not be an immediate reflex to wonder whether the item was fairly made, whether the workers are discriminated against, or whether the manufacturers are supported by greedy corporations. However, it is important to start thinking about human rights responses as an interconnected ecosystem.
Though cause-based fashion is not without its concerns, it can also play an important role in raising awareness and sparking action in support of social or political action.
Not all brands are created equal, however, and many smaller companies have taken greater care in building environmentally- and socially-responsible supply chains. These enterprises may also be started by womxn, black, indigenous, and people of color, or members of other marginalized communities actively engaged in creating positive impacts within their supply chains and surrounding communities. Thus, consumers may want to take the additional step to identify trendy items produced by small and local businesses in order to invest both in their growth and the causes consumers care about.
Though cause-based fashion is not without its concerns, it can also play an important role in raising awareness and sparking action in support of social or political action. Like many art forms, fashion may logically lend itself to social critique just as other visual mediums have for hundreds of years. In the age of social media, visual arts have a particularly salient role in moving mass audiences through eye-catching and pithy messaging. In contrast to other art forms, fashion’s innate wearability and social ubiquity perhaps make it an even more accessible and mobile form of self-expression and activism than others. In the context of COVID-19, the ability to portray these messages and spark conversations from a safe distance is even more critical.
Fashion also has a unique value-add for driving viral and broad-reaching trends - a trait that can be especially useful for social movements that require sweeping support. Particularly for young people, making political and social activism ‘trendy’ may be an easy way to bring in new individuals to critical conversations with the goal of leveraging this initial interaction to build up to more active and meaningful engagement with the movement in question. Here, brands can support these efforts by providing consumers with more context about the movement they are supporting with their purchase.
During the 2020 election cycle, brands have done just that by leveraging their platforms to connect voters to tools for easy registration or safe voting practices. While it is impossible to measure the direct impact of these efforts, profound early voter turnout suggests that coordinated industry efforts from non- and for-profit enterprises alike should not be underestimated.
Considering that every product has its environmental impact, those looking to use fashion as a means of activist expression should carefully consider whether the environmental or human rights impacts of purchasing a new item are worth the potential positive outcomes.
Items like reusable bags may serve as both a call and response to movements like the fight against climate change, thus providing the benefit of both raising awareness of critical causes while also allowing consumers to reduce their environmental impact. Again, achieving true impact through actions like these rests in the execution: consumers who choose to opt for reusable bags must commit to using their cotton tote upwards of 131 times before it is more environmentally friendly than the plastic alternative.
Considering that every product has its environmental impact, those looking to use fashion as a means of activist expression should carefully consider whether the environmental or human rights impacts of purchasing a new item are worth the potential positive outcomes. As always, consumers should also consider the amount of use they will get out of that item, with the goal of wearing an article of clothing at least 30 times as a way to offset the items’ climate and economic costs.
Combining fashion with activism, thus, is perhaps less about ‘if’ but, rather, ‘how’ and ‘who.’ Making fashion a fuel for social progress lies just as much on consumer engagement as it does on brands stepping up to provide meaningful impacts and modes for action. Especially if social impact is the ‘new normal’ for the fashion industry, companies must explore how they can ensure that cause-based merchandise creates value for the people who make our products.
Apala Guhathakurta is a New York-based public health specialist with a keen interest in low-waste and sustainable living. Hanna Cody is a New York-based sustainable fashion enthusiast, writer, and founder of the blog, The Mindful Argonaut.