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By Pernille Hammershøj Madsen

The dilemma about the concept of ‘sustainable fashion’ is a hot topic in the ethical fashion world. An important question on everyone’s lips is: “how can a fast fashion company claim that it is sustainable while it at the same time uses fast fashion production practices?” On the other hand, one cannot avoid acknowledging that the fast fashion brands have invented a brilliant business model, which with its sustainable products gives the consumer the feeling, that his selfish shopping act actually is not that selfish at all. At the same time, the fast fashion industry allows us to buy cheap clothes, which easily can give us the feeling that we are richer than we actually are. But who is paying the price of the cheap production since apparently, the consumer does not? How do fast fashion companies manage to make this work? Finding its inspiration from the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek’s idea of cultural capitalism, this article aims to question the charity aspect of buying into sustainability.

“Sustainable fashion doesn’t make any sense. It’s a contradiction in terms.”

With these words journalist Vanessa Friedman (New York Times) started her speech at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, urging the audience to look the words ‘fashion’ and ‘sustainability’ up in the dictionary:
According to the Oxford Dictionary: Fashion is “the production and marketing of new styles of goods, especially clothing and cosmetics.” Sustainable is “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” See the problem? On the one hand we have the pressure to be new: on the other, the imperative to maintain. Sustainable fashion is an oxymoron. It’s Jumbo shrimp. It’s a down escalator. It’s terrible beauty. It’s resident alien.

Vanessa Friedman does offer a keen critique. Keeping her point in mind, an interesting question is how the fast fashion companies have managed to build up a successful business model that is based on sustainable fashion. What triggers the consumer and makes him/her feel that the conscious label is the right choice? According to Slavoj Zizek, the idea of buying into sustainability works because it makes us feel better as a consumer, since the sustainable choice gives us the ‘redemption of being only a consumer’. In the old days, he claims, one made money, and afterwards gave it away to charity. With modern business models, many companies offer the consumer the option to buy with the promise that one’s social obligations are already fulfilled simply in making the purchase. Slavoj Zizek gives the example of Starbucks, but the idea goes with fast fashion brands as well: Imagine yourself walking into any Starbucks (or fast fashion brand!) on the planet. You are invited to buy a nice cup of coffee, and at the same time, you are given the possibility to do something good for society, since a certain percentage of your money is given away to charity (at the fast fashion store ‘charity’ is sustainable fashion).

With this idea in mind, Slavoj Zizek quotes Starbuck’s campaign: “it’s not just what you are buying, it’s what you are buying into”. This business model seems also to be working in the fast fashion industry: a largely represented fast fashion brand is H&M. Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M who stated that: “H&M has carried out a research that suggests their shoppers are 21% more interested in ethical clothing than they were a year ago.” The key to combining fashion and “the act of doing something good for society” is, according to Helmersson, that the clothes should be good looking:

Ethical clothes only work when they look good and are affordable”. In the case of H&M, and other fast fashion brands that operates with the conscious label, the egoist act of buying something to look good equalizes it self by offering the consumer the opportunity of buying something sustainable, something which is good for society. Getting back to Slavoj Zizek, this equalization is at the core of what he refers to as “cultural capitalism”. The fact that the “ethical clothes” have to be affordable is also worth keeping in mind, since Livia Firth (ECO AGE) at the Fashion Summit in Copenhagen reminded us that: “the fast fashion brands are making us believe we are rich but in fact the only one becoming more rich is the fast fashion brand.


Image: RSA Animate


The dilemma of “the good slave owner”
In his argument Slavoj Zizek draws upon good old Oscar Wild and his masterpiece “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”. Here Oscar Wild states that: “the remedies of the rich do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it”. With this critique in mind, let’s think back to the a panel debate of the summit when H&M’s Helena Helmersson talked about the company’s attempt to offer all Bangladesh workers “a good living wage”. The 200-dollar question is, what exactly H&M means by “good living wage”, a question Helmersson was asked by Livia Firth during the panel debate. Helmersson did not have a direct reply to that question, and instead she stated that: “the workers should define what a fair living standard means to them, and this living standard should cover their basic needs.” Helmersson assured Firth she would show her the details of the plan later on. Apparently it was not something she could talk about on stage.

There is a connection between H&M’s attempt to do something good for their workers (and meet the consumer demand for ethically-produced clothing) and Oscar Wild’s viewpoint concerning slave owners, presented in The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “the worst slave owners were those who were kind to them and so prevented the core of the system from being realized by those who suffered from it”. Workers in developing countries are still subject to dangerous working conditions; just think about the Rana Plaza accident that happened just over a year ago. It’s frightening and thought-provoking to consider that it took a tragedy like that to trigger a reaction from the fast fashion companies that were involved with Rana Plaza’s factories. More than 1,100 workers were killed when the giant building collapsed, and one cannot help but lamenting the fact that the factories of Rana Plaza not only left the workers behind: Consumers buying clothes from cheap factories like the ones at Rana Plaza are often fobbed off with bad quality textiles, thus getting the spellbinding feeling of being richer than they actually are.

Back in the spotlight is the fast fashion brand, which makes money and thus gains from the whole situation. The picture is even more clear when one returns to Slavoj Zizek, and his reference to Oscar Wild: “When the rich gives his fortune away to charity, he is actually repairing with the right hand what he destroyed with the left”. Then on the other hand, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that charity in its idealistic and abstract sense is better than no charity at all. When this is said, one should always keep in mind, that the concept of trade with the rich is never a good idea in itself – fast fashion companies that offer their consumer sustainable clothes tend to always have the company’s profit as their first priority, even though they might do a lot of advertising in the attempt to make it look different. Slavoj Zizek’s lesson to us is thus: Keep this in mind next time you consider the conscious label in the store of a fast fashion brand!

Image: Daniela Reiner


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