The Problem with Fashion Influencers

May 27, 2020

Being a fashion influencer seems like a glamorous job: you get to dress up and do fun photoshoots, brands send you free clothes, and you get paid for being creative.

But beyond all the lighthearted content, how many fashion influencers are actually a good influence, especially when it comes to sustainability and ethics? It’s undeniable that fashion is an extraordinarily detrimental industry. It’s polluting and consumerist. Factory workers are placed in hazardous conditions for unlivable wages.

Is it possible to be a truly sustainable fashion influencer, especially when your income often relies on promoting consumption? These questions have been on my mind lately, and I’ll be exploring them in this post.

I’m not here to hate on fashion influencers—I just want to discuss the problematic behavior I’ve observed in a constructive way, and offer potential solutions, plus ways we can grapple with these issues as consumers.

What I Mean by “Fashion Influencers”

Let me first define who I’m referring to when I say “fashion influencers.” I’m talking about people whose niche is fashion and who receive any form of compensation for their fashion content.

I also want to clarify that much of the problematic behavior I’ve observed isn’t actually from content creators who focus primarily on sustainable fashion. Most of the problematic behavior is from general fashion influencers who don’t talk about sustainability at all, or do so in a misinformed way.

Sustainable fashion is trendy now, and influencers who might not otherwise care about it have started paying attention and chiming in—whether because they genuinely want to promote more conscious consumption, or because they’re using sustainability as a marketing tool for their personal brand.

Unfortunately, some people are still ignorant of fast fashion’s detrimental impact on the environment, or they just choose not to care. I don’t want to vilify influencers who aren’t talking about the ethics of fast fashion, as maybe they just aren’t aware. They might also find it tough to talk about something more “political” when they normally cover more lighthearted topics. I understand this, and just want to use this space to have an open and constructive discussion about ways fashion influencers can be better informed, and how they can use their platform for good in a mostly-destructive industry.


Photo by Fatin on Pexels

How Do Fashion Influencers Make Money?

The main issue with fashion influencer culture is that influencers usually don’t make money directly from their audience for their content—they make money through advertisement or sales. So, to support themselves, they essentially have to encourage consumption.

Here are the main ways fashion influencers (and creators in other niches) make money:

Ads—These could be video ads through YouTube, or ads on a blog.

Sponsorships—Where creators partner with a company to plug their products or services. This could be an entire dedicated post or review (“Why I love X Company’s Fall Collection”), or could just involve a feature within a post (a segment about SkillShare in a thrift flip).

Affiliate links—These links allow creators to make a small commission on any sales through their links. Fashion influencers often use these to link to pieces in an outfit they wore.

Their Own Products/Services—Creators can also make money more on their own terms, if they sell their own products (like their own collection of clothing or jewelry, though this is usually in partnership with another company that oversees production). They can also sell their own Lightroom presets, a course, or a book.

Patreon—This is where creators are paid directly by their audience for exclusive content, like behind-the-scenes videos, a group video call, or voting power on new content.


Photo by Madison on Pexels

The Problem with Fashion Influencers

They encourage consumption.

Fashion blogging and “influencing” was born in a time where buying fast fashion was the norm and no one thought twice about it. The whole premise of being a fashion influencer was to show off your massive wardrobe and all the trendy items you got on sale, plus how you styled them. I actually used to be a fashion blogger myself, and used to buy clothes all the time “just for fun,” and because they were cheap.

Traditional fashion influencers today still rely on this old framework—they style all the cute fast fashion pieces they just bought (or were gifted), and link to these items you can buy the same outfit too. Constantly seeing all these new clothes and deals only encourages unnecessary purchases.

This constant promotion of new clothing likely happens because influencers are trying to earn an income through sponsorships and affiliate links, and I can understand that people need to make money. I don’t think that these constant messages of consumption are healthy though, and I wish more influencers were talked more about the environmental and ethical issues surrounding fashion.

They advertise for brands that aren’t ethical, or for greenwashing brands.

It’s also unfortunately common in the fashion blogging world to promote companies that produce insanely cheap clothes, like Shein, Romwe, Forever 21, and H&M (I’m sure we’ve all stumbled upon haul videos for these companies). When a shirt costs only a few bucks, there’s no way that it was produced sustainably and that factory workers were paid a fair wage. That cheap clothing was likely made in a sweatshop, where working conditions are hazardous and workers are paid next to nothing. This can lead to horrific incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, where a garment factory building in Bangladesh suddenly collapsed, killing over 1000 people and injuring more than 2500.

Even influencers working with higher-end companies like Nasty Gal and Urban Outfitters need to understand that these are still fast fashion companies likely using sweatshop labor. Just because a brand costs more doesn’t mean it’s automatically ethical or sustainable. Even a brand as expensive as Lululemon, with its $100 leggings, still lacks clear sustainability and labor ethics measures (this Good On You article explains why Lululemon isn’t an eco-friendly company).

Unfortunately, even brands that claim to be sustainable might actually not be. This is known as greenwashing, where companies say they’re eco-friendly and ethical, but have no evidence to back up their claims. For example, I’ve seen many influencers work with Everlane, a company often touted as the best sustainable brand. Everlane claims to be “radically transparent,” but it has no third-party certifications, offers only hand-wavy info their website, and is the subject of labor union controversies in the US. I have a whole post on why Everlane isn’t as ethical or sustainable as many people think, so you can learn more about the issues there.

They promote a false idea of sustainability.

I’ve seen many fashion influencers create videos titled “HUGE Sustainable Fashion Haul,” and these always sadden me as a “sustainable fashion haul” is totally contradictory.

It’s a common misconception that if you buy from sustainable brands, your actions are automatically sustainable, but this is totally not the case. If you’re buying an excessive amount of clothes you don’t need and won’t regularly wear, that leads to wasted resources (the textiles, labor, transportation, packaging). This is true even if you donate your clothes, as only 20% of clothes donated to thrift stores is actually sold.

So, promoting the purchase of an excessive amount of clothing, even if the pieces are from a sustainable brand, is not sustainable. This only encourages a false idea of sustainability that doesn’t involve your personal actions. Sustainable fashion doesn’t only involve how the clothing was made—your consumption of clothing is equally, if not even more, important.

This means that if you can’t afford sustainable brands or don’t have access to thrift stores, you can still participate in sustainable fashion by making your clothes last a long time, and only buying what you need. If you care about sustainable fashion, I strongly encourage you to do the same, even if you do purchase from sustainable sources. Purchasing new clothes, even from a sustainable brand, should always be second to reducing your consumption (and buying used should also come before buying new, when possible!). 

See my post on misconceptions about sustainable fashion to learn more about common mistakes and how to fix them.


Photo by Mica on Pexels

The Problem with Fashion in itself

Mainstream fashion is also an inherently unsustainable field, because the idea is to buy clothes you don’t need to make nice-looking outfits. To be clear, I’m not against any sort of fun in life. I’m not saying fashion should be abolished and we should all wear potato sacks and live in cabins in the woods. I’m just saying that fashion is a non-essential field, and it’s difficult to draw the line between “this is just a fun hobby or art” and “this is bad for the environment.” This is because we all do non-essential things that aren’t necessarily good for the environment.

When it comes to fashion influencers, they also have the added challenge of earning income in a way that doesn’t promote consumption. Unfortunately, their main streams of income—ads, affiliate links, and sponsorships—all rely on selling things to their audience.

A quick clarification: when I say fashion is “non-essential,” I’m talking about mainstream influencer fashion, which is often materialistic and not focused at all on the cultural impacts of fashion. I also mean “non-essential” from a literal survival perspective. I certainly don’t mean to degrade fashion as an art and vehicle for expression in any way. I’ve been told that fashion has also been key in giving marginalized communities a voice. If this is point is something you are passionate about, I invite you to suggest specific resources where we can read up on fashion from a cultural/activist perspective.

Potential Solutions for Fashion Influencers

So what can fashion influencers do to curb this problematic behavior, while still making an income? Here are a few different steps you can take.

1. Educate yourself and your audience.

If you weren’t aware of the issues surrounding fast fashion, learn about them! There’s a great documentary called The True Cost, which talks exactly about the detrimental human and environmental impact of the fashion industry. There are also many clips from the film under the “learn more” tab, plus resources for being a more conscious consumer.

Once you’ve educated yourself, share this knowledge with your audience. It can be in an Instagram caption or story, a blog post, a video. While it may feel weird doing so if you normally only focus on lighthearted topics, these are important issues with people’s lives at stake. The more people who care about getting change, the likelier change becomes. Talking about these issues will only make your content more meaningful.

2. Research brands thoroughly before working with them.

Before you agree to work with a brand, check up on the measures they have in place to ensure a sustainable and ethical supply chain. A great place to start is the company website. Do they have actual evidence to back up any claims of sustainability, or do they remain ambiguous? Another resource is Good On You, which researches clothing brands and rates them according to their environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do they have any third-party certifications? (Like B Corp, Bluesign, 1% for the Planet).
  • What sort of materials do they use? Are they natural and high-quality?
  • What specific sustainability measures do they have?
  • How do they ensure that their factory workers are paid a living wage?
  • Does the company make a commitment to diversity?

You can also reach out to the company yourself and ask these questions—the kind of response they give (or lack thereof) can speak volumes.

3. Work with sustainable brands, secondhand apps, or start a Patreon.

Of course, you lose out on certain streams of income by giving up brand deals with fast fashion brands, and by promoting conscious consumption. There are, however, ways to make that lost income up.

There are tons of sustainable brands that need more people to get the word out about them. Consider working with one of them, after verifying that they’re actually sustainable. You might also consider a partnership with a secondhand app like ThredUp or Poshmark.

Thrift flips and clothing modification videos are also super popular on YouTube, so you might be able to get some ad revenue by creating content in that domain.

Finally, you could also consider setting up a Patreon, where your audience pays you to get access to exclusive content. This platform is becoming increasingly popular with creators, and using it would allow you to create content that doesn’t encourage consumption, while still getting an income.

Eva B thrift store in Montreal, Canada - knick knacks hanging from the ceiling
The funkiest and coolest thrift store in Montreal
trying on bright blue pants in a thrift store

What You Can Do as a Consumer

1. Ask yourself if you really need what you’re tempted to buy.

As consumers, we’re constantly surrounded by ads and messages encouraging us to buy things we don’t need. When you’re tempted to purchase something new, ask yourself whether you truly need that piece, and whether you’ll wear it regularly. If you still want the piece, try to get it secondhand if you can, or from a sustainable brand (or even rent it, if it’s only for a one-time occasion). And if you exhaust all these options and still want the item, buy it, but make sure you make that piece last, and actually get good use out of it.

2. Research brands thoroughly.

I covered this in the previous section for influencers, and the same tip applies here. Do your research even if an influencer gushes about a brand and how sustainable it is. They might’ve been misled by a greenwashing brand.

3. Educate others.

You don’t need a huge platform to educate others about important issues. You can still educate your friends and family, whether through social media, messages, or normal conversations. Like I said, the more people who talk about these problems and demand change, the more likely change is.


 

To be clear, I’m not asking for perfection, and I understand that it’s impossible to be 100% sustainable. I myself readily admit that I’m not perfect!

This post is not meant to be rude to anyone, or to just complain and be negative. I am being critical, but I hope I’m doing so in a constructive way. I’m sharing this information because I want more people to be aware of these issues, and to make an effort to grapple with them.

You might also like these posts:

7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Is Everlane *Actually* Ethical and Sustainable?

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Note: I was partially inspired to write this post due to the “bestdressed situation.” Basically, tons of videos have come out recently criticizing a popular fashion youtuber for being problematic in several domains, including sustainability. I made my own commentary video on this situation, if you’re interested in more discussion.

4 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage May 28, 2020 at 6:30 am

    Love this! (And so excited to be able to follow you on YouTube now as well!)

    A brand once contacted me to send me a dress, and when I asked them about how and where it’s manufactured they were being completely evasive but kept replying several times. “There is nothing to worry about because all our clothes are made in China, and China is a big country.” Okayyyy??? And they just kept insisting. I never figured out if it was a general misunderstanding due to the language barrier or they just pretended not to understand me when I said: “If you have been following my blog like you say you have you would know about the importance of sustainability and ethics to me and my audience.”

    Another thing I have observed that I find extremely unethical is “sustainable fashion bloggers” who do thrift hauls and then sell those clothes to their followers. I get that you need to make money but you’re really going out to buy clothes you don’t even intend to wear, sell them to your followers at a profit, and then somebody in your city who may need them cannot buy them? And you’re a sustainable and ethical influencer?

    There are so many problematic people out there that even people I know follow. I understand it can be really difficult to see through some of that performative “activism” and I don’t know what we can do about it. Because if you call someone out it can easily be seen as negative and perhaps even jealous so these people get away with it due to the fact that they have a large following.

    • Lily May 29, 2020 at 9:51 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nina! Really means a lot to have a blogging friend I can have these conversations with 🙂

      That company sounds so sketchy! I honestly can’t believe the nerve of some companies sometimes. I also had a “sustainable” jewelry brand reach out to me to promote their jewelry, where they’d donate 10% to pandemic funds, and there was no mention of compensation. I was like: #1. If I wanted to donate to funds and encourage others to do so (which I do), I’d tell people to do it directly, rather than buying jewelry we don’t need to get a small percentage donated. #2. If they’re actually sustainable & ethical, they should pay fairly for labor & advertising. Bloggers are small brands, and they work hard on building a platform. Honestly ridiculous!

      And yeah, I also am not a fan of people going into thrift stores just to buy and resell things at a profit. Given that only 20% of clothing in thrift stores is sold, you might say they’re not being problematic, but they’re probably taking away the best clothing from people who might not have the income to afford it otherwise.

      And totally agree about this idea of performative activism – it’s sad to see these important issues being used as marketing or branding tools. I think it’s important to always view things with a discerning eye, and to give constructive criticism when needed. I hope people will do the same to me, as I always want to know if something I’ve done is problematic.

  • Somrita June 8, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    This is such a great post about something that needs to be talked about more.
    When I started to look out for more sustainable and ethically-produced clothing, I was sadly surprised to see the level of greenwashing that exists (Case in point, as you mention, Everlane).
    We definitely need more awareness around this.
    Would you consider writing about some of the real sustainable (and affordable) brands that people can buy from? That would help many to actually explore sustainable fashion.

    • Lily June 8, 2020 at 4:36 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Somrita! That’s a great suggestion for a post. I would consider doing it at some point, but it’s currently not a high priority for me since I always want to encourage people to buy secondhand or use what they already have before buying new, even from a sustainable brand. I am planning to write a post soon about how people can tell whether a brand is greenwashing or not, though 🙂

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it).
    As a liberal arts grad/endurance athlete/travel enthusiast, I find beauty in many spheres. Consequently, I have no idea where life will lead me. Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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