Reading the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking eco fashion’s saving the planet. A day hardly goes by without another story reaffirming an industry greening itself. Either that, or someone’s taking pot shots at how designs moving off the catwalk at the speed of light are destroying us. They’re two sides of the same coin, really.
I can’t help thinking we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit, though. If sustainability is the new orange, and fast fashion its self-evident evil twin, then why is the latter so mind-bendingly more popular?
The French semiotician Roland Barthes answered this a half-century ago with his insight that “industrial society is obliged to form consumers who don't calculate”. Or to put it another way, as Andrew Brooks says, “The dicta of the market is commodity fetishism.”
Commodity fetishism is the idea that the value of an object comes from the object itself, rather than the human work that produced it. It expresses the disconnection between workers in, say, Bangladesh who make clothes and the teen girls in California who buy them and make haul videos.
In internet time, haul videos have been around since Gary Brolsma’s lip sync phenomenon “Numa Numa”. That’s a long time if you’re counting YouTube memes.
Haul videos consist of “young women recount[ing beauty and/or fashion] items purchased on a recent shopping trip.” According to Sarah Sykes, “over 50 million people watch more than 1.6 billion minutes of consumer created fashion and beauty videos on YouTube” each month. Since they first started appearing in 2006, they have racked up “over 14.6 billion views … with an average of 700 million views per month in 2013.”
One YouTuber who’s taken a fair share of those views is Bethany Mota.
In 2009, aged thirteen, Mota took a plunge on YouTube. It was a haul video showing off beauty products purchased from M·A·C and Sephora. Subsequent uploads branched out into makeup tutorials, but in 2014 she was still doing haul videos like this one for clothes picked up at Forever 21, Topshop, Aéropostale, and Love Culture.
Today, Mota’s closing in on 10 million subscribers and a billion combined views, which Business Insider estimates pulls in around $40,000 a month. (Perhaps that’s what haul video really means.) There’s also Bethany Mota, the brand (in partnership with Aéropostale). Time magazine called her one of the “Most Influential Teens” of 2014 and 2015.
Until this extraordinary asymmetry is acknowledged – where sections of the press laud sustainability advocates who trash a segment of the fashion industry that dwarfs them – eco fashion risks being as influential as consumer boycotts. Which is to say not much.
If we want sustainable apparel and textiles, then we need work with the manufacturers who produce it, dealing with the worst excesses in supply chains.
And more power to the low or no footprint alternatives providing us with more choice than ever before. It’s an exciting time, but they’re not going to colonise fast fashion.
We need both, whether we like it or not.