First published on March 31, 2021
Last week, TV presenter Laura Whitmore excitedly announced that she is the new ambassador for Primark Cares, the high street giant’s sustainability initiative. As part of her 12-month role, Whitmore promised to play a “vital role in making change for the future” and ask “all the questions… you have when it comes to sustainability for big high street brands”. The announcement ended with a note that her entire outfit was from Primark.
To many, the post will sound like good news. Thanks to organisations like Fashion Revolution and Remake, as well as educators and activists sharing fashion facts and news on social media, many people now have some idea of issues such as child labour or low pay within the fashion industry. So cheap, stylish clothes that don’t cause harm sound pretty great.
Once the ultimate in cheap fast fashion, before e-commerce newcomers such as Boohoo swooped in with even lower prices, Primark has a history of human rights and environmental issues. The Irish brand was linked to the Rana Plaza factory which collapsed on April 23, 2013, killing over 1,100 people. And in 2020, the brand cancelled all orders from its overseas suppliers in order to cut its losses ahead of Covid-enforced store closures. Only after pressure from campaign groups did Primark agree to start a fund to help pay the wages of workers affected, and while the firm has now committed to meeting all cancelled payments in full, there remains a lack of transparency about how the scheme was implemented and no guarantee the workers will see any money.
Lying by omission
Certainly, Whitmore may well have good intentions, but she has become the latest influencer to be used as a greenwashing tool by unethical, unsustainable brands. While social media campaigns highlight brand actions such as using ‘sustainable cotton’ or recycling, they obfuscate any ongoing problems and oversimplify what is an incredibly complex issue, creating the illusion that they’re saintly from top to bottom.
The week prior to Whitmore’s announcement, for example, a Primark supplier factory in Myanmar was accused of locking its workers in a factory to prevent them from joining anti-coup protests. Tomorrow, meanwhile, will mark the three-month anniversary of the death of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a Dalit garment worker who was murdered by her supervisor at Natchi Apparel, a supplier for H&M. So far, Kathiravel’s family have received no compensation and H&M has failed to sign an Enforceable Brand Agreement to help prevent further gender-based violence and attacks – yet in February, fashion publications and social media were awash with images and praise of footballer Héctor Bellerín’s ‘sustainably made’ collaborative collection.
While Bellerín and Whitmore both allude to caring personally about sustainability, neither has an established background or expertise in supply chains, garment worker rights, sourcing, or any of the other myriad facets of fashion manufacturing. Nor do the many other influencers brands co-opt into their sustainability campaigns – and that’s where the problem lies.
What to believe
As author and content creator Stephanie Yeboah noted when I rather ungenerously implied all influencers simply ignore unethical brand practices for financial gain, “some of us genuinely don’t know what to believe. [H&M] have been sending out massive PDF packs featuring all this evidence about the stuff they are doing so sometimes it is confusing on what to believe, especially if we don’t specialise in sustainability.”
What is certain is that plenty of influencers are presented with evidence by their followers about problematic brands they represent and choose to ignore it. However, sustainability is an incredibly complicated landscape and brands undoubtedly rely on overwhelming people with complex, impressive-sounding information so they feel assured that they are representing a brand that perhaps isn’t perfect, but is trying.
Influencers, then, have a responsibility to do their due diligence. They should be researching the companies they agree to represent and promote to people who trust them, but when a brand presents you with a jam-packed PDF that suggests everything is in hand, it’s no surprise that some are fooled.
In influencers we trust
Influencers may be getting information decks from brands, but consumers receive no such thing. When celebrities and big names get involved, there’s a level of innate credibility at play. They’re in the fashion system, in the know, and the implicit trust they’re afforded by fans and followers is cynically employed by brands to carefully shape the popular narrative about their environmental commitments and fair working conditions.
Sometimes, influencers allude vaguely to “asking questions” or “having conversations” with the brands they represent – as Whitmore did, when criticised for her new partnership. But ultimately, they are being paid to market products. “You cannot challenge one thing in the supply chain if you accept the brand framing,” says author and broadcaster Lucy Siegle. “Someone on a marketing contract posing as someone who is in a position to challenge or understand the truth about this system is not just a stretch, it is delusional.”
For all the talk of organic cotton initiatives or garments made from recycled polyester, there is absolutely no consideration given to the culture of overconsumption that many influencers and brands such as Primark, H&M, Zara, and Boohoo promote. As modern fashion brands continue to operate with a growth imperative, producing less is never floated as a solution. Rather, they use influencers to sell a sightly altered iteration of the same old problem. Three million organic cotton hoodies is still three million hoodies, after all, and no matter what clothes are made from, producing, promoting and selling more than anyone could possibly ever need – or even wear – will never sit within a sustainable framework, no matter how many Instagram posts suggest otherwise.
Tracking the truth
For those who simply don’t know what to believe, there are some positive moves happening. In 2019, the Norway Consumer Authority demanded H&M apologise to consumers for “illegal marketing” in the promotion of its Conscious Collection, stating that the information regarding sustainability was insufficient. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority is investigating whether brands marketing their ranges as “eco-friendly” are breaking the law. So far, they’ve found that around 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading.
Increased scrutiny around language and claims of sustainability, then, are a move in the right direction.. But while the lines are blurred and there’s money to be made in amplifying misleading brand messaging, make no mistake – the truth is a long way off.