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When "sustainable style" blogger Leah Wise first heard about the mass layoffs and rumors of union-busting happening at Everlane, she cried.

An early adopter of the brand, Wise had been buying and posting about Everlane since 2013. She appreciated that it wasn't as expensive as some other labels in the "ethical fashion" space and that it made wearable clothing practical for her everyday life. But after initially withholding harsh judgement when rumors of Everlane's problems started to bubble up last fall, the company's response to employee unionization this spring was a bridge too far for Wise.

"Everlane is how I make the bulk of affiliate income, with a few thousand dollars a year credited exclusively to Everlane commissions," she wrote in a blog post in March. "Letting them go as part of my financial strategy will hurt, badly, especially as a student who cannot work full time in a traditional job." Despite the financial loss, she felt she "could no longer sit comfortably in the gray area," and announced that she would no longer be working with the brand.

Wise wasn't alone in ditching Everlane. Sabrina Katz, the vegan content creator behind @sustainablesabs, pulled out of the the partnership she had excitedly signed up for with the brand just a few months prior. Meanwhile, Natalie Borton, an influencer with 133K followers, was considered a significant enough affiliate that she was granted a call with CEO Michael Preysman after the scandal surfaced. But what she learned was apparently less than satisfying, because she announced shortly thereafter that she was ending her contract with Everlane two months early.

Everlane is just one of a large collection of young companies known for their values that fell rather dramatically off their pedestals this year. 

Reformation, long a "sustainable" fashion favorite, was called out for racism; the same happened to millennial-beloved beauty brand Glossier just a few months later. Refinery29 and Man Repeller, media companies that had promised a more inclusive alternative to the "you can't sit with us" fashion mainstream, saw their founders leave amidst accusations of racism and classism. Employees of Outdoor Voices, known for its go-get-'em girl power, spoke of a workplace so toxic they were having panic attacks at the office. And Audrey Gelman, co-founder of feminist-branded "coven" The Wing resigned this summer after Black and brown employees shared stories of mistreatment.

"We have been told over and over by our leadership that we're a mission-driven company, even as the company's actions consistently prove otherwise," The Wing employees wrote in a statement. Their words could have just as easily been penned by those working at a dozen other brands. 

Accounts of companies behaving badly aren't exactly new: Corporations have been exploiting their labor forces, enacting misogynistic policies and upholding white supremacy since before the language to describe those actions even existed. But what makes these issues feel so striking at this particular point in history is how much faith citizens have put in brands as of late. 

An Edelman report released at the end of 2019 concluded that across seven nations — including the U.S., U.K., Brazil and India — citizens trust brands more than they trust the government. It's not hard to understand why that would be, especially in countries like the U.S., where a president who lost the popular vote continued to wield power most citizens never wanted him to have in the first place. 

Recent polls indicate that faith in other once-trusted social institutions like religion and the media continue to decline, too. One by Gallup from September claimed that the percentage of Americans who have "no trust at all" in the media reached a record high this year, while reports of declining faith in religion — especially among younger people — have piled up in recent years.

Against this backdrop, brands have widened their influence beyond the scope of their direct products and services. While President Donald Trump spent his four years in office rolling back as many environmental protections as possible, Patagonia was suing the White House to protect public lands. The Wing was putting out its own women-led and -staffed magazine No Man's Land as "shitty media men" lists proved that #MeToo situations were happening at even the most progressive-seeming publications. Even spiritual enlightenment has been deemed the purview of well-branded corporations of late: Churches may have struggled to attract and retain younger members, but SoulCycle and Lululemon offered alternative paths to enlightenment that many find appealing.

Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet, summarized what many seemed to believe at the end of 2019, writing: "Brands are affecting change and social discourse where governments and religious institutions have failed." 

In the face of so many once-central social institutions slipping in their perceived trustworthiness or relevance, it's not surprising that there's been a vacuum of leadership that brands have stepped up to fill. If your government seems racist and climate-denying, your church seems out of touch and your media untruthful, why not look for leadership from a company that more fluently speaks the language of feminism, anti-racism, inclusivity, authenticity and sustainability?

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The failures of this year give at least one reason why not: Brands have failed to deliver on these claims as spectacularly as any other social institution. They may have better branding and advertising departments than the federal government or your local synagogue, but their slick communications haven't consistently yielded more promising results than those often more clumsily-marketed institutions. When 54 percent of consumers think brands "have an important role to play in social conversations about issues like #MeToo and race relations," as the Business of Fashion 2021 State of the Industry report claimed, these public shortcomings feel significant. No wonder formerly devoted customers have been left in tears.

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To Danielle Prescod, a fashion media professional and co-founder of anti-racism consultancy 2 Black Girls, looking for moral leadership from brands has always been a trap.

"I don't expect social justice activism from brands," she says. "I think that's stupid. We live in a capitalist society; every brand's intent is to sell something... I pay them for a service and I expect that service to be done well. It's a transactional exchange and that's all it should be."

That's not to say that Prescod wants to let companies off the hook when they've messed up: The entire purpose of 2 Black Girls is to help brands root racism out of office cultures and business models. But there's a difference between simply learning to stop functioning as a "pillar of white supremacy" and practicing genuine leadership in the arena of civil rights, she says. 

From her perspective, this recognition of the ways that brands fall short of their professed values doesn't mean they necessarily deserve eternal cancellation. For example, despite Reformation's very public shortcomings, Prescod and her 2 Black Girls co-founder Chrissy Rutherford still agreed to appear on the brand's blog this summer. "Racism is a temporary destination, it's not the final thing," she says. "You could grow out of it, but you have to work at that." The point, she continues, is to remember that a brand is a brand — nothing more, nothing less. To expect it to sell you a dress with a side of fixing racism or ending climate change is to misunderstand the very nature of what the company exists to do.

Still, it's hard to blame individual citizens for falling for that bait when many of our culture's most-lauded figures, from politicians to activists, have advocated for a neoliberal vision that often treats entrepreneurship and philanthropy as two sides of the same coin

"Neoliberalism spread the mantra that human needs and even solutions to social problems are best met by the marketplace and by capitalism — not government, civil society, or collective action," wrote journalist Elizabeth Cline in an incisive op-ed for Atmos this summer entitled "The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer." 

"Out went strong environmental regulations, social welfare programs, labor unions, and, most crucially, our generations-long history and culture of how to make change through public rather than private means," she continued. 

But the result of the shift towards the market as a solution to everything hasn't delivered what its proponents promised. As journalist Anand Giridharadas chronicled in his 2018 book "Winners Take All," the idea that what's good for business will be good for society has been undercut by the reality of growing income inequality even in wealthy nations like the U.S, not to mention the looming climate crisis.

If mere conscious consumerism really worked, Cline argued in the piece, we would've seen bigger change by now. Instead, the very companies that those conscious consumers have been supporting by "voting with their dollars" have proven themselves incapable of fully living up to their own professed values. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean they should be "cancelled" into bankruptcy — just that treating them as inherently more trustworthy than the government or religion or the media is a faulty strategy.

What, then, is the solution to the big problems we've long looked to these social institutions to solve? Cline and Giridharadas both suggest some version of "nurturing democracy," since democracies are set up to be more accountable to their citizens than brands are to their customers. (No matter how much consumers might think they can enact change by "voting with their dollars," Prescod says that all the attempts she's seen to "cancel" a company have barely affected sales.) Still, focusing on democracy might at first blush seem an unsatisfying answer to citizens who already distrust the government for sometimes very legitimate reasons. 

But trusting the government and nurturing democracy are, on closer examination, different things. The former implies looking for leadership from an entity that may or may not have earned that trust. The latter suggests actively working to change that entity so it's more deserving of trust in the first place. 

The difference between the two is action. It's the gap between expecting someone else to fix things, and knowing that things won't be fixed as long as we're all waiting for someone else to step up. It's the idea encapsulated in one of the chants used to protest police brutality in the streets of the United States this summer: "Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe."

Whether enacting that ethos involves traditional politics or not, it's sure to mean more than just buying from or tagging the next cool values-driven brand on social media "in support of their mission." This year has proven the futility of looking to brands as the leaders who will solve the most pressing problems that plague us. 

Rather than putting our faith in CEOs and their products, perhaps it's time to acknowledge that we're the leaders we've been waiting for all along.

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