Ethics and Fashion

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Where does your moral compass point? | Photo Credit

Let's consult Merriam and Webster for the definition of the word "Ethics:" an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior. Ethics is on the crossroad of fashion and politics. It deals with topics like PR, outsourcing, customer coercion, cultural appropriation, taxes, etc., but ultimately, the questions elevate themselves to the bigger ones: for or against capitalism and for or against censorship?

Ethical Consumption

"There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism" has almost turned into a meme recently. Popular t-shirts with "this is what a feminist looks like" written on them, a result of collaboration between ELLE UK and Fawcett Society - Britain's largest women's advocacy group - turned out to be made in a sweatshop in Mauritius, where workers got paid about a dollar an hour and slept 16 to a room.

The initial response was to be outraged: liberal feminism had failed to be inclusive again. Then it got worse, because the problem turned out to be bigger. You are probably wearing something made in a sweatshop right now, because, as mentioned earlier, "there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism." In order to keep prices as low as they are in America now, businesses have to outsource for cheap labor.

F 21 tee bitter sweet

What buying fast fashion feels like. | Photo Credit

So, should we be angelic in our shopping habits and simply quit buying dubiously cheap jeans? Maybe this isn't a bad idea. There are many ethical shopping guides available online and it has been proven that experiences, rather than ownership of material things, cause happiness in life.

Getting one quality t-shirt may be better than three different cheap designs, even regardless the terrible working conditions, but the question of whether we as consumers, as broke college students, are responsible for ethical consumption remains. In part, it is the corporations' responsibility to be ethical, and in part, Departments of Labor should be better at their jobs.

According to Zizek, choosing ethically made products is a way to soothe our conscience without directly addressing the problem. It also may be a form of customer coercion: TOMS may not be the best shoe producer, but it helps shoeless children, so you buy a pair.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't always be alert and responsible in our buying choices, because all choices would be ethical, but for now, unless we are ready to start a revolution and treat the citizens of developing countries with the same respect we treat ours, some form of anti-consumerist ethical shopping is encouraged. Everyone says, "personal is political." To hell with $5 tees made by Indian children.

Offensive Fashion

Social justice warriors get offended all the time and rightfully so, but the fact doesn't matter much. To quote Stephen Fry:

"It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that,' as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase."

Nothing has universal meaning: neither religion nor orientation, neither history nor trauma.

On one hand, the world, of course, doesn't owe you the comfort of "not offended:" I may believe in the religion of the Great Purple Elf King, and if someone decides to print it on toilet paper that will be offensive, but I will understand that my set of values shouldn't match others' to be important.

On the other hand, social justice is a mere suggestion to reconsider. "So many people feel bad about this," it says, "maybe you should consider not being mean." It asks us to examine the sources of our opinions and on which accepted axioms they rest. It is not censorship; it's an invitation not to be a bigot.

For example, in Louie: It's not saying that you can't say the word "faggot," it's suggesting you understand what it means for other people and only then make your choice to use it. Asking Nicki Minaj to remove her Nazi-inspired music video is censorship and isn't acceptable because of the fundamental right of free speech, but asking her to reconsider and apologize is only ethical.

Nicki Minaj Only

Sweet odor of provocation. | Photo: Screenshot

Another case of supposedly unethical behavior is cultural appropriation: the use of elements of another, usually oppressed culture by the dominant culture. Here, I agree with its criticism: culture is something to be shared. Artists play a thousand different roles; it's usually about unity of cultures, a tribute, a play that has little to do with stealing traditions or complicated pasts. After all, wars are purely political and use humans as tools. Sharing of cultures can be a protest against it, too.

While everyone can have an opinion on the issues of offensive fashion, we must not forget that, in the end, it is for the offended group to decide if something crosses the line of acceptable.

Ethical PR

Feminism potty mouthed

Hmm... "Using feminism and a shock element to sell uninspired tees?" | Photo: Screenshot

A danger of our fixation on social justice is the companies' use of it for PR. If a release is on the border of offensive, it is bound to cause conversations both pro and against.

A recent example is children cursing to promote feminism and sell t-shirts. It is a paradox to talk about it, thus helping the company's not-so-noble cause of selling ideas without actually benefiting the political movement in any way, but this is only one example of businesses monetizing the recent popularity of social justice. Have they found the one common millennial hook called quasi-libertarian equality? Should we let them use it?


Is it a personal responsibility to be ethical? Can culture always be shared? Is it ethical to use feminism like a brand? Tell us in the comments.

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