In a cozy little nook of the internet, mornings are spent curled up in an armchair while quietly sipping a latte from a wonky ceramic mug. Clothing is loose fitting, adheres to an earthy color palette, and is often paired with chunky, handmade clogs. Natural fabrics abound and an abundance of indoor greenery always seems to bloom nearby.
Welcome to the world of “slow fashion” influencers, where people – mostly women – gather to share outfits and sing the praises of saving, fixing and buying well-made clothes rather than of fast fashion parts.
These designers have built followers for their mindful consumption, the placid pictures they post on Instagram, and their uncanny ability to look good in clothes. But beneath the surface of all lifestyle photography lies a more complicated reality.
Slow fashion is a practice, a set of values that asks adherents to extend the life of their existing clothes and, if they have to shop, to buy second-hand. But increasingly, the term has been embraced by brands that do little more than produce clothes in smaller quantities than, say, Gap.
The clothes these companies sell (and influencers promote) may be made in small batches by workers who receive fair wages, but they are still new things, created from resources mined from a finite planet. When it comes to slow fashion, the communist refrain that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is less rhetorical than a real predicament.
“The mere term ‘sustainable fashion influencer’ can sound quite oxymoronic,” said Aditi Mayer, 25-year-old Los Angeles content creator, photojournalist and workers’ rights activist.
While these influencers may feature brands seeking to lessen environmental impact, their content still ignites an urge to consume. Spend enough time surfing surf-related hashtags and you might walk away with an itch to drop $400 — a price that may reflect fair working wages — on an oversized sweater from a brand you’ve never heard of to speak.
The irony of messaging within this social media niche is hardly lost on influencers. Beth Rogers, 27, described the crux of influencing sustainable fashion as “the desire to divest from capitalism and overconsumption while having to participate in it”. And the best way to deal with that tension, she said by phone from Chicago, is to “keep space for it and not try to back down or ignore it.”
Ms Mayer considers herself a ‘Trojan horse’ in the fashion industry and sometimes uses conversations with brands to learn more about their business practices. “I’m in a really interesting situation,” she said, “because the everyday consumer doesn’t necessarily have access to a large company’s in-house suite.” Brands, she noted, don’t always respond kindly to her questions.
“I think the average consumer has a lot of room to learn how to buy things better,” said Marielle TerHart, a plus-size designer from Edmonton, Alta., who goes by Marielle Elizabeth online. By encouraging people to take care of their clothes and showcasing brands that offer an inclusive range of sizes, Ms TerHart, 32, is helping her followers develop more conscious relationships with clothes.
Lyndsey DeMarco, 28, a content creator from Portland, Oregon, tracks her purchases using budgeting software; in 2021, she bought 15 pieces of clothing (a mix of new and used) and received 15 additional pieces from brands. She has estimated that she accepts about 5% of the free clothes she is regularly offered. Ms Rogers said she typically buys 15-20 items a year.
Many influencers choose their partnerships based on strict criteria. For Ms. TerHart, that means supporting companies that pay workers well.
“My priority is that everyone who works on the garment receives a fair and decent salary,” she said, “but I have a little more indulgence for designers who are marginalized in one way or another. another because I know their funding opportunities are very different.”
Ms. Mayer focuses on small brands with high work standards, but will sometimes accept partnerships with bigger brands as part of the Faustian bargain that the more financial freedom she has, the more she can work with emerging brands with smaller budgets.
“I really try to portray clothes as options, not must-haves,” said Lydia Okello, 32, a plus-size content creator from Vancouver, British Columbia. Mx. Okello is careful about the language used in articles about these garments, as a strategy to balance the incongruity of accepting paid advertisements to promote products while trying not to encourage consumption.
“I don’t think just because you saw it on me or someone you love you should buy it, even if it’s literally my work,” Mx. Okello said.
Influencers occupy a delicate place in the market as middlemen between the consumer and the brand, said Gabbie Nirenburg, a self-proclaimed “non-influencer” in Philadelphia. Ultimately, she sees her role as a hands-on role: Seeing clothes on different bodies can be hugely helpful when deciding to spend $200 on a pair of ethically made jeans. (Ms. Nirenburg, 38, who works full-time for a health insurance company, is the creator of the Index of style bloggersa gigantic spreadsheet where shoppers can find bloggers with similar metrics to theirs.)
Sustainable fashion influencers are educators, not just advertisers, said Aja Barber, author of “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.” Their main goal is to provide clothing inspiration and show how to wear clothes multiple times. They may create a desire for new items, but this is not in the context of a throwaway trend cycle.
“It’s not, ‘OK, now let’s move on,'” Ms Barber said. “It’s, ‘I have these pieces and I’m going to wear them for a long time.'”
However, not all experts agree. “I think when an influencer aligns with a brand, the commerciality of that brand taints the message,” said Elaine Ritch, senior lecturer in marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Perhaps the reason a lot of slow fashion content looks dishonest is because of the platform it’s released on. Social media, once a place of true connection, now exists primarily to sell both products and personalities. Even the most heartfelt posts about social causes can seem out of place online. In other words, it’s not the message that’s the problem, it’s the medium.
That’s not to say the message doesn’t make sense. According to Ms Mayer, a big part of her job is to reimagine what the future may look like – a world where fashion doesn’t demand the label “sustainable” because it already values work and the environment – but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s incredibly difficult to work in the fashion industry while advocating, in some ways, for the end of the fashion industry,” Ms. TerHart said.