The ethics of influencing: do social media stars have an obligation to promote sustainable fashion?

Influencers influence – there is no questioning the truth in this. It’s in their job title, the entire way they make a living is through the promotion of brands to thousands of young people, typically girls. In entering this new social media fuelled field of work they are placing themselves in a role we haven’t quite seen before – walking talking adverts who dictate fashion trends and lifestyles. But does this come with a moral responsibility to promote a sustainable lifestyle, in particular sustainable fashion? Or, more simply, is avoiding the promotion of ethically corrupt companies the least they can do? It’s no secret that brands like Pretty Little Thing, Boo Hoo and Nasty Gal embody fast fashion and are some of the worst culprits for unethical labour and the use of non-renewable resources, and yet they seem to be the brands that these influencers jump upon at the first opportunity. Do influencers have an obligation to promote ways of living that avoid slave labour scandals, or will we allow them to exercise free speech and promote whatever they please?

Some would argue that influencers should be free to promote whatever they choose, and are under no moral responsibility to discourage fast fashion as, ultimately, it is down to the consumer to decide what they purchase and support. If an individual feels a strong inclination against a certain brand, they don’t have to buy from them just because an influencer endorses them – each person is their own individual moral agent with different sets of values and ethics. Lucy Ashworth, a student at the University of Leeds, stated; ‘If I was an influencer I wouldn’t promote those kinds of fast fashion brands, but I don’t blame them. I’m not going to judge them for it because it’s a moral choice within themselves if that’s something they want to do’. We each have our own decisions to make, and perhaps influencers can only be responsible for what they choose, not what the rest of us do.

However, it needs to be addressed that this isn’t quite how influencers and trends work. Although it seems true that it is down to the consumer to decide what they buy, the entire purpose of influencers promoting brands is for them to increase sales…and they know this. They act fully in the knowledge that by attaching their name to a brand, both they and the brand will gain from it, as it is simply a business partnership. There needs to be gain on both sides for it to be worthwhile. Olivia Neill has recently come out with her second partnership with Motel Rocks due to the success of her first, indicating that there must be an increase in demand when she promotes a certain look, style, and range of clothing. Social media is all about quick trends that are easily jumped upon in masses, and when fashion brands see that influencers such as Olivia Neill are experts at crafting trends, they must view it as a perfect opportunity to give traction to their fast fashion-fuelling micro trends. To say that influencers don’t have a responsibility, or at least some influence, over what young girls are spending their money on, isn’t giving them enough credit. Gaining a successful brand deal such as a Motel Rocks line is the ultimate goal – not only for they monetary income but also for the moment of seeing a trend take off that you helped to promote.

With Molly Mae becoming the creative director of Pretty Little thing it is evident that more and more young women are succeeding in the fashion industry, and we should no doubt be celebrating the empowerment of this. Yet attention should be brought to the fact that by working for these brands, they are actively taking themselves out of the conversation surrounding sustainable fashion. Any future promotion of a sustainable way of buying clothes would seem highly hypocritical; they are placing themselves in a precarious position where participating with or promoting micro trends stops them from ever talking about the damaging nature of it. Entering into a dialogue about the benefits of sustainable fashion would mean that suddenly, they wouldn’t be able to do £600 haul videos that bring in thousands of views, or have a brand deal with fast fashion companies. These things are unmistakably damaging to the environment and exploit the most vulnerable in our societies, and by promoting them, the image of these influencers would be completely contradictory. It seems they have a choice, a side to take in the conversation; one option is to avoid such brands (not even necessarily to a perfect degree, just not over-indulging to the extent we are used to seeing); the other option is silence. Arguably, with the current state of the Earth’s climate and resources, combined with the positive influence these people could have, silence is as good as actively endorsing unethical behaviour.

So it may seem apparent that influencers do have a degree of moral responsibility over what they promote if they care for the state of the environment and ethical labour. But where do we draw the line? What about a sustainable diet, modes of transport, and every other aspect of their life they ‘promote’ online? We can’t realistically expect them to live to a perfect standard, or shame them when they don’t, as perhaps we don’t even do this ourselves. Furthermore, it may be naïve to assume that influencers are completely educated in the field of sustainability any more than you or me – after all, they are ultimately ordinary people simply documenting their lives. However, surely this issue is one that reaches much wider than girls filming themselves from their homes, an issue for which to understand better we need to point the finger of blame at the companies and brands. It could be argued that they are the ones who are doing the real damage. Influencers certainly need to take a step back from the over-consumption, high turnover of clothes that has become commonplace, but to say they have a moral responsibility to ensure we are all living sustainably may be placing too much blame at the feet of the wrong people.

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