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WRITING DETOURS | Are we failing at communicating fashion?

Jesse Pizarro Boga

BLACK Friday, the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, is upon us again. This time of the year will see retail messages of deals and discounts to rain down on consumers relentlessly until the end of the year.

I am taking this moment as a prompt to reflect and process how I feel about my journey so far in communicating fashion and sustainability in a social current that is bombarded with shopping ads, retail conventions, and narratives that have made the idea of “budol” a celebratory moment.

Fashion uses so many natural resources from production to consumption and it generates a ton of waste down the line. Are we shopping our way to the demise of our planet? I hope not.

In 2019, I worked with fellow Global Shaper Yana Santiago to localize a global campaign on fashion and sustainability. With Yana’s vast experience in fashion social entrepreneurship, we identified so many communication opportunities to send out a strong message: to reimagine fashion as a force for good.

We worked with an academic partner, the Philippine Women’s College Davao, to start a conversation about how fashion and the environment is closely interconnected and how consumers, producers, and designers alike can work together to address local and global challenges.

Good things came out of the campaign: we saw fashion students take on sustainability projects for schoolwork, local sustainable fashion brands emerged into the fore, and small circle understood and promoted the idea of sustainable fashion.

Looking back, I understand that no matter the buzz we made, our efforts would be tiny and fleeting if the conversation we started is not sustained.

This is when I decided to explore the fashion and sustainability idea in the academe. Needless to say, this was another herculean challenge.

It took quite some effort to make my graduate school thesis panel appreciate the importance of pursuing fashion communication that is not centered around retail and marketing.

Our conversation generally went like this:
So it’s environmental communication? Yes but not exactly.
So it’s sustainability communication? Yes but more specific.
So it’s consumer education? Yes but it’s fashion focused.
So it’s marketing? No, I’m not trying to sell fashion. I’m trying to send a message!

It was difficult to look for literature that explicitly mentioned that there is little research being done about communicating fashion and sustainability in my locality. Communication scholars, for example, tend to exercise rigidity in understanding of communication opportunities and solutions and are quick to compartmentalize fashion as a purely marketing endeavor.

Social entrepreneurs, change makers, innovators (or whatever they like to call themselves) are supposedly contributing catalysts to this conversation. Unfortunately, some of those who focus on fashion and/or sustainability practice a lack of openness in terms of engagement and this lends their efforts to be very exclusionary. The conversation on sustainability circulates among themselves only; environmentalists, educators, media and communications professionals are not necessarily part of picture.

These instances create a rift that makes it all the more difficult to bring the fashion and sustainability conversation to the public.

We are failing at communicating fashion because a bigger voice is drowning consumers with a call to shop…quite excessively. We are good at producing stylish edits but we are not adept at visualizing the impact of fashion to our planet.

The more prominent message circulating out there is centered on retail and shopping experiences peddled by big brands and companies. The element of empowering consumers in the context of sustainability, it seems, is often seen as a novelty best emphasized on observances like Earth Day.

It doesn’t help that greenwashing is becoming a worrisome disruption that keeps telling the average consumer to shop products that are good for the planet. Reality check: no one can shop their way to sustainability; the most sustainable item of clothing is the one you already have!

At the end of it all, I am left to wonder whether the fashion and sustainability conversation is still really worth pursuing and bringing into community consciousness when people are more enthralled by a 70% discount tag than saving the planet.

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