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Instagram, Algorithmics and Anti-Fast Fashion Action

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In her third piece for WhichPLM, Annabel Lindsay, Creative Lead & Circular Fashion Specialist for Mindless Mag, writes about digitizing fashion activism, social media taking accountability for promoting fast fashion, and the industry banding together to realise a fairer fashion future.

Many of us take a level pride in curating our Instagram presence through filtered photos, thought-out feeds, or pre-planned content. Whether simply for enjoyment or for professional purposes, the desire to invest energy into our Instagram profiles is pretty normalised.

In recent years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of accounts campaigning for a fairer fashion industry, led by advocates, activists, and independent brands. United by a desire to challenge the status quo of exploitative fast fashion giants and the influencers they use in their profit missions, who are saturating our feeds with excessive hauls and collaborations.

Activism on social media isn’t a new concept. Digital activists have existed since social media’s inception. However, there’s been an increase in digital activist presence due to the pandemic and amplifications of environmental justice and civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ and Climate Strikes. Many of us turn to social media to stand in solidarity with these movements, learn more information and find initiatives to support. What many of us may not realise is that the very platforms we rely on to make our voices heard and stand up for a cause we believe in, may just be working against us.

Advocacy for a fairer fashion future, that doesn’t cost people and planet, is arguably one of the causes fighting the biggest uphill battle on social media sites, particularly Instagram. Here’s why…

Algorithms Against Ecology?

Once upon a time, social media platforms were a place to connect with loved ones, share moments and celebrate real life experiences. At this point, identifying optimum posting times was enough to ensure good outreach and engagement on a post.

It didn’t take long for fast fashion retailers and the platforms themselves to spot huge capital potential. Soon, social media algorithms began to shift from ‘reverse chronological timelines’, towards ‘relevance-based curation’ and the digital presence of fast fashion sky-rocketed. Simultaneously, a counter anti-fast fashion movement began to emerge in response, predominantly on Instagram, campaigning for a fashion industry revolution.

To now compete against the presence of these fast fashion giants, social media tactics need invested refinement, to create high-quality content and maximize opportunities to earn engagement. But this suggests a need for deepened understanding as to what extent any engagement is specifically content related or controlled by larger factors at play.

The popular documentary The Social Dilemma explores digital algorithms as ‘opinions embedded in code’, suggesting ‘algorithms are non-objective and ‘optimized to some definition of success’. Therefore, ‘if a commercial enterprise builds an algorithm to their definition of success, [if] it’s a commercial interest…usually profit’. This raises the question of whether Instagram’s algorithm is programmed to support a consumer capitalist economy, and therefore fast fashion interests, by prioritising transactional and sponsored posts that encourage consumerism.

If algorithms are designed to boost consumerism and capitalist ideologies, how effective is Instagram as a platform for combatting the fast fashion crisis? In 2020, Instagram even rolled out an update in Europe and the US where the heart-shaped notification icon on the home feed became a handbag icon directing people to the new Instagram shop. Are we being conditioned to engage in consumerism in return for access to social media? If this is the case, it’ll likely become increasingly difficult for anti-fast fashion content to cut through digital noise and spread important messages connoting anti-consumerism. Particularly concerning the increased commercialisation of social media in general as fashion brands also use paid advertisements to capitalise on user’s digital engagement.

Catch 22

The longer a user spends on social media, the more likely they’re to be exposed to content depicting the notion of micro-trends and fast fashion, manifested through an aspirational, influencer denoted presentation of trend affluence. Therefore, general increased exposure to Instagram, even with fairer fashion advocacy content present, may ultimately and ironically be perpetuating fast fashion consumption. Raising concerns regarding the suitability of social media to successfully promote fairer fashion at all, with successful outreach over fast fashion promotion.

On a planet with finite resources, there cannot be limitless consumption. However, Instagram remains yet to be seen implementing systems or policies that suggest it’s actioning or even addressing this issue. Now, I’m no tech whizz, but I don’t believe it takes one to identify the glaring issue here. Algorithms appear to be acting as barriers for those attempting to challenge the interests of fast fashion production and consumption.

Post-Tech Thinking

Increased time on social media has been proven to worsen mental health and perpetuate capitalist ideologies, intensified by the growing intelligence of social media algorithms. There’s a problematic irony that the digital channels seemingly facilitating platforms to convey important messages regarding fashion transformation and justice, may simultaneously be hindering the shift away from fast fashion as an accepted norm.

Furthermore, if digitising fashion activism means increasing social media usage, there may be a decrease in time spent in communities and participation in nature and society- grounded values which are rooted in fairer fashion thinking. An appreciation of humanness and nature could very well be lost in its essence, through a total fixation to solve the fast fashion crisis through centralising digital activism. Whilst much digital activism seeks to buttress society to value, humanness, community, and nature, it may be beneficial for ant- fast fashion activism and solutions to also exist outside of digital capacities, with simpler, grounded roots.

Navigating Digital Activism

Social media fashion activism is still important, but it can also be overwhelming if not produced or engaged within a healthy manner. It’s important to set boundaries to avoid become stagnant in the wake of limitless information about social issues like fast fashion.

Conscious efforts should be made to marry a harmonious balance between emotional investment into any activism action and learning, to drive the cause, against being able to maintain objectivity as to present information regarding the topics covered. From a psychological perspective, maintaining engagement with the discussion of anti-fast fashion solutions, could lead to parallel increases in eco-anxiety caused by deepened realisations of fashion’s environmentally destructive truths. This is when it can be beneficial to step away from the screens and return to real-life action and solutions.

Social Media Accountability

Social media holds the potential for countless new opportunities to create collaborative systems spawned from fairer fashion ideologies, like regenerative communities, shared resources, and resource usage maximisation. Social media platforms could play host to new fashion systems and practices, but until its algorithms are programmed to elevate these conversations and ideas, they will instead serve fast fashion’s capitalist interests above people and planet.

For such an idealistic vision of social media to become reality, there needs to be platform accountability. As mentioned earlier, The Social Dilemma documentary highlights this point perfectly. In fact, I recommend cancelling your evening plans for mindless scrolling on the sofa, for some mindful watching of this documentary instead (which can also be done from the comfort of your sofa).

Fashion Solutions Beyond Consumption

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something” – Max Lucado

This isn’t to suggest social media is all bad and digital-led activism is a waste of time. This is far from the truth. Platforms like Instagram can be invaluable for raising awareness of the social and environmental exploitation of fast fashion and their accessibility is hugely credible too. The work that anti-fast fashion advocates are doing on social media is vital for educational purposes and breaking down any barriers that keep the industry’s dark truths concealed from consumer knowledge. However, we should also look to solutions and action beyond the limitations and perhaps often conflicting interests of social media platforms themselves.

We need to create and support fashion solutions outside of endless growth and consumerism because, quite simply, we cannot consume our way to a better world. Therefore, we need mindfulness of how the platforms we use operate to ensure any fashion activism and transformation efforts are not undermined by consumer-driven, capitalist features and programming.

Fashion activists, brands, businesses, grassroot initiatives and the public alike need to collaborate, to discuss ideas and explore how we will achieve a fairer fashion future, override unsustainable capitalistic ideologies that exploit people and planet, and pave the way for a new fashion era, enhanced by technology like social media, not undermined by it.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.