[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Sarah Ditty is Global Policy Director at Fashion Revolution, a global movement campaigning for a fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit. Sarah has worked in social responsibility and environmental sustainability in the fashion sector for the past ten years and was recently named one of London’s most influential people by the Evening Standard Progress 1000.
If we wanted people to take action and care about these issues, we needed to use all that knowledge about what makes people excited about fashion – the language, visuals, influencers.
What is Fashion Revolution?
Fashion Revolution was founded as a direct response to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. It killed over 1,100 people, mostly young women making clothes for big high-street brands.
Workers had sounded the alarm a few days before, saying there were cracks in the wall and they didn’t feel safe. They were forced to go to work and perished because of the exploitative way the fashion supply chain is structured.
So, a group of about 20 diverse people working in different sectors – including environmental sustainability, human rights, social issues, the fashion sector, and corporate social responsibility – came together to do something.
Rana Plaza was the largest industrial accident since 1984. We wanted to make sure that it became a watershed moment, not just another story in a news cycle that would be forgotten in a week.
We wanted to use it to build momentum to create systemic and much more radical change within the fashion sector – to mobilise a more mainstream audience.
Supply chains are so opaque, fragmented and complex. Rana Plaza was a case in point. A lot of brands didn’t even know where their clothes were being made or under what conditions. There was no traceability and so no accountability.
We set out to create a new narrative around the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain that would resonate with more people than NGOs and campaign efforts before us had managed.
Using fashion branding and marketing techniques
Most of the people that started Fashion Revolution had worked in fashion for a long time, so they understood not just how the fashion industry worked, but also had experience working with brands and understood the power of marketing. That’s the knowledge we brought to the table as a collective.
They understood why people buy and love fashion, and how to speak about fashion in a way that’s relevant, enticing and interesting to people.
If we wanted people to take action and care about these issues, we needed to use all that knowledge about what makes people excited about fashion – the language, the visuals, the influencers. We needed to use storytelling in a way that other campaigners had not yet done at scale.
That brand value is literally what drives the fashion industry and fashion consumption. That’s why people are willing to pay so much money for big name brands.
We needed to use those same tactics and principles to drive people in a different direction: not just to think about if the brand is cool or looks good, but the supply chain and all the stories behind it.
First and foremost, that required having a strong brand ourselves, where fashion consumers would be like ‘oh that looks cool’ before they even know what we are about.
We picked a name that said what we do, or what we aim for: Fashion Revolution was simple, easy to grasp, bold, and action oriented.
Using digital campaigns to cut through the noise
One of our strongest tools for activating people has been social media. We asked ourselves: where is the fashion audience? How do we reach them? For the past ten years they’ve been hanging out online, sharing content and talking about the latest shows, models, trends etc.
We focused on driving online conversations around where our clothes come from, the lack of transparency, how we just have no idea what we’re buying or what we’re supporting with our hard-earned money.
If you’re going to have online conversations, you have to have a tool to track those conversations: hashtags.
Our first hashtag corresponded with our first-year campaign called #insideout. It was around the time of the ice bucket challenge that was sweeping the internet and raised the most money ever for the motor neurone disease ALS.
We wondered what could be fashion’s version of this. We asked people to turn their clothes inside out so their label was showing, to tag a brand, ask them for more information and then challenge a friend.
Labels give you so little information about the supply chain. So, that was our way of getting people to question what they knew about their clothes from the label.
Then came #whomademyclothes? By asking a question through a hashtag you involve people in trying to answer it.
The action for that year was to connect with your favourite brands and ask ‘who made my clothes?’ to try to get them to be more transparent about where their clothes are made.
We have continued that campaign since 2014 and every year it grows. There are hundreds of thousands of people contacting brands asking them that question.
Each year, we publish the Fashion Transparency Index, ranking the world’s biggest brands and retailers. People can look at the data and know which brands are further ahead on particular issues.
They can then ask more sophisticated questions, like ‘what are you doing on living wages?’ or ‘what are you doing on freedom of association?’ That means brands have to look to to their supply chain to get those answers.
It’s a great way to start connecting dots that weren’t connected before and build conversations on issues that weren’t being had before, at least not with the mainstream public.
Who holds the narrative power in fashion?
Brands hold the power because they have the money and marketing expertise. And good marketing entails creating narratives about what is cool, desirable, sexy.
We have been trying to use brands’ own techniques to disrupt and change the narrative.
We have to tell a new story about what our clothes mean. We’re trying to make it more than just brand value or aesthetics. We want it to be about the stories of the people involved in the processes that led to the garment being constructed and you being able to buy it and wear it.
We didn’t call this narrative change in the beginning. But we wanted to know how to change the culture around fashion – the story, the values, brand and consumer behaviour. Only more recently we have come to understand that it’s about narrative change.
Lessons on mobilising people
A way in to talk about bigger issues
Fashion and clothing can be a useful tool to get people thinking about much bigger issues, like capitalism, political economy, or politics. Because it can be fun and a bit frivolous or glamorous, it’s not scary for people to engage in systemic, political and economic conversations.
Fashion is such a driver of other cultural trends too. If we can make change in fashion, we can make change in so many other arenas. It’s been really interesting to see how fashion can influence that bigger conversation about the way our economy is designed.
Knowing your audience
Knowing the people you want to activate or connect with is hugely important: who they are, what they care about, where they hang out, where they connect, what visuals they like, what language they respond to.
A lot of the content we make goes viral because it’s funny. Memes really drive conversations. Not being too preachy, rather using satire and humour to get people to think differently in their own way.
Asking questions and being provocative
People are like, ‘hmmm, I haven’t really thought about it before.’ Most people don’t like to be told what to do or what to believe. But when you design messages, content, visuals in a way that prods and pokes them into questioning something, that is super powerful because then they come to it on their own.
Using the power of brands.
If you are trying to build a community or a movement then you need a brand that people can get behind. You want them to wear it like a badge or an identity, so they can find each other and feel like they are under the same umbrella. A brand that speaks to what you’re about and what you are trying to achieve.