When the Australian bushfires started making front-page headlines all over the world, the fashion industry responded the way it has responded to many tragedies over time: by selling stuff.
Labels like Realisation Par, Le Specs, Lee Matthews, Barrineau and Scanlan Theodore donated percentages of their sales to charities like WIRES Wildlife Rescue. Blundstone pledged to donate $50 for every pair of boots sold on Australia Day and emerging brand Krost even made "climate change" T-shirts and crop tops with pictures of forests and fires on them, donating all proceeds from them to the Red Cross.
It wasn't just retailers getting in on the action. Fashion outlets like Who What Wear and Bustle amplified these efforts by publishing stories about the brands giving back with their favorite picks from each, while influencers like Danielle Bernstein of @weworewhat encouraged their followers to shop these initiatives.
But are these gestures really doing any good?
According to UK-based writer and consultant Aja Barber, who focuses on sustainability, ethics and race, there's a particular irony when the cause in question is tied to the environment — especially if the brand in question is shilling fast fashion.
“They're banking on the public being uninformed about the fact that they're contributors to climate change," Barber says of brands like Pretty Little Thing, which pledged to donate the equivalent of about $205,000 to Australian bushfire relief. "The system of fast fashion [on] which their fortune is made is a direct contributor to climate change, which is the reason Australia is burning."
Though scientists are still puzzling out exactly what percentage of the Australian bushfires can be attributed to climate change, it's clear that longer and more intense fire seasons are exacerbated by a warming planet. For brands that seem totally unconcerned with their carbon footprint most of the time to suddenly launch a fundraiser aimed at providing relief in the face of climate-related natural disasters, then, is more than a little ironic.
According to Barber, these gestures are largely empty. By rallying followers and customers around an important cause, a brand is able to present itself as "good," which can create a sense of loyalty with today's weary shoppers. But while donations may be useful to a given cause, making and consuming more merchandise is almost certainly not. (Unfortunately, an eco-friendly crop top isn't going to save the planet.)
With intense fear over climate change — aka eco-anxiety — on the rise, buying into the movement has become the new temporary salve for people who feel totally overwhelmed and lost. It tells consumers that they can be part of the solution simply by shopping.
"But making a product to sell and diverting the funds from the sale of the product as a charitable donation is a way of reaping the benefits without actually using your own money," says Anika Kozlowski, assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University.
"Given that products, especially T-shirts, are extremely low cost to make, it's likely costing a brand far less to make a T-shirt and donate part of the profits than to actually just make a straight donation," she continues. Of course, an actual donation by a brand would be less visible to consumers.
Dio Kurzawa, founder of The Bear Scouts, likens this situation to tobacco companies providing money to build medical centers while still selling cigarettes. No matter where the proceeds go, creating new merchandise from virgin materials is part of the problem when it comes to climate-related disasters.
So is it possible for brands to responsibly engage in activism at all?
"I love the nostalgia association with the activist slogans on T-shirts made popular by Katherine Hamnett, but times have changed," says Kurzawa.
Activism merch might still serve a purpose, but it needs to be reimagined. This could include a circular approach in which companies employ existing fabrics or garments and upcycle them. And incorporating pre-ordering can help reduce overproduction, Kurzawa notes.
But ultimately, actions speak louder than graphic slogans on T-shirts.
"Brands should definitely have an activist role, but I don't agree with selling a product to do so," says Kozlowski. A charitable donation is not always the best answer, and brands need to start thinking about other ways they can support the causes they care about, she adds.
In her view, there are a few already doing it right — like Empowerment Plan, which works with the homeless to provide shelter and skills through the production of coats; Kotn, which builds schools in the Egyptian communities that farm its cotton; Kenneth Ize, a designer who works with artisan groups in Nigeria; and The Slum Studio, which combines art and fashion to raise awareness about slums.
Kurzawa sees Noah, which has created made-to-oder collections to raise funds for hurricane victims in the Bahamas, as another brand moving in the right direction. The fact that the brand has a "responsible fashion core focus," he says, is what makes the difference — rather than creating one-off programs, these initiatives are indicative of the ethos the brand embodies year-round.
"We need to do more listening," asserts Kozlowski. "The biggest mistake I see brands making is to quickly jump to support a social cause that is trending to make themselves visible. If there's a cause or charity that speaks to you, find ways to support that community; engage with them, listen to them and find out what it is that they need."
The age of merely wearing our causes on our sleeves is over. If you really want to make a difference, being a responsible citizen of the world means that doing good as a regular part of your everyday life — perhaps by donating money to charities directly and by raising awareness through your own social platforms. When that's true, "supporting" a cause won't be something you flaunt just when that cause is making the news.
“Supporting charities should not be about the visibility you gain personally," says Kozlowski. "It shouldn't be about personal clout and getting a pat on the back for buying a T-shirt."