Is Social Media Traceability’s New Superman?

superman

Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are helping consumers learn where their clothing is made, but can social media fix the problems it unearths? Traceability is simple in concept, allowing consumers to track where goods are produced. You can find the simplest manifestation of it in your fridge, on those little stickers telling you where your fruits and vegetables were grown. But who harvested those avocados? And what chemicals were used in growing that celery? You’ll need more than a sticker to tell you that.

Your closet bears a similar dilemma: Most clothing sports a country of origin label saying “Made in …,” but where was the cotton for that T-shirt grown and under what conditions did workers sew those jeans? These are the questions that traceability advocates are trying to answer today.

#WhoMadeMyClothes?

Social media excels in the traceability arena by doing what it does best: disseminating information and connecting like minds. To date, the most prominent social media campaign regarding traceability in fashion was spearheaded by Fashion Revolution, a collection of activists, designers and journalists from around the world.

#whomademyclothes

On April 24, 2015 — the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse, which led to the deaths of 1,138 people in factories that produced clothing for Walmart, Benetton and The Children’s Place, amongst others — Fashion Revolution observed the first annual Fashion Revolution Day. The occasion was marked on Twitter and Instagram with users taking selfies while wearing their clothes inside out and backwards to reveal the country of origin label. The photos, hashtagged #WhoMadeMyClothes and directed at fashion brands, made the message clear: Consumers no longer wanted to remain ignorant and complacent; they wanted the curtain that shrouds international garment manufacturing drawn to reveal the human beings on the other side; they wanted traceability.

fashion revolution day

“For the first time we are seeing transparency, sustainability, environmental and social issues becoming a kind of global conversation that we take into our homes,” says Fashion Revolution co-founder Orsola de Castro. The numbers support her: 63 million people from across 76 countries helped make #WhoMadeMyClothes the number one topic trending globally on Twitter. It’s an impressive achievement for Fashion Revolution, an organization which is less than two years old, but asking a question is not the same as receiving an answer, and unfortunately too few brands have replied.

“In terms of brands, it may look like we are preaching to the converted,” says de Castro, referring to brands like EILEEN FISHER, a champion of traceability who embraced the #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign wholeheartedly. But there were a few surprises too: Zara, the fast-fashion retailer, for example, actually responded to a Facebook video querying the origin of one of their hoodies with a specific list of subcontractors and the dates of their most recent audits. And as for the other brands?

“They’re running scared,” says de Castro.

Social Media: Slacktivism or Clicktivism?

“We don’t necessarily want to be just an awareness raising campaign,” says de Castro of Fashion Revolution. “We are aware of the fact that we need to hit the brands and we need to hit the factory owners and we need to hit the unregulated supply chains in order to actually achieve the changes that we need to achieve.”

As for the ultimate means of implementing those changes, De Castro is unequivocal: “There is nothing we can achieve without government.”

To that end, Fashion Revolution is lobbying governments around the world, writing letters of guidance to politicians and pushing them to implement legislation that will foster an ethical, sustainable fashion industry. And they’ve already had some success, seeing their recommendations read aloud at the European Parliament and catching the ears of U.K. parliamentarians like Lola Young.

social media

These are just a few of the ways that Fashion Revolution can rebut charges of “slacktivism,” a pejorative for activism allowing participants to feel good about themselves while achieving little. It’s an accusation that has been lobbied so often at online campaigns that it’s spawned an even more particular charge: “clicktivism.” But not everyone thinks that clicktivism is such a bad thing.

“I don’t think that clicktivism is replacing activism; I think it’s amplifying it,” says Karina Kogan, Executive Vice-President of Digital at Participant Media. “I think it’s giving voices to people who otherwise don’t have time or otherwise wouldn’t get involved…for lack of a better word, clicktivism is probably a ‘gateway drug’ to activism more than it is a deterrent.”

Kogan is in a unique place to judge the merits of clicktivism. Participant Media’s digital division, TakePart, combines socially conscious journalism with online action. Its articles on everything from poverty to climate change are accompanied with petitions, pledges, letter-writing campaigns and donation drives from more than 130 nonprofits, like the Sierra Club, the ACLU and Oxfam International. This innovative model has produced results: Each month, TakePart draws around 10 million visits from 7 million unique visitors who participate in 1 million actions on behalf of 12 to 20 campaigns. In other words, TakePart has created a platform that takes the power of social media and plugs it directly into social good.

takepart action

“We’re not the nonprofit, we’re not in D.C. doing advocacy work,” says Kogan of TakePart, “but we hear back from our partners all the time about the successes they’re making, whether they’re at a local, state or national level.”

A particular success Kogan recalls is that of the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) certification: Following the publication of content on TakePart explaining how farm labor conditions are connected to food safety, EFI was able to gather 40,000-plus signatures reflecting interest in a label certifying fair farm labor standards. With these signatures, EFI went to retailers like Costco and convinced them to purchase products carrying the new certification. To complete the circle, EFI returned to TakePart to ask users for their help in designing the label.

“Now if I go into a Costco I can see this label I helped create, not only advocated for,” says Kogan.

Are TakePart’s users involved in clicktivism? Undoubtedly. But it’s difficult to accuse them of slacktivism when they’re actually reaching their goals.

Social Media’s Kryptonite?

“Awareness is the first step,” says Anbu Anbalagapandian. “In my humble opinion, all of these social media channels are fantastic in creating awareness … but it takes more than social media to build a solution.”

It’s that step beyond social media that Anbalagapandian has attempted to take by founding Orange Harp, a mobile app that connects users to socially conscious products.

orange harp

The idea is simple: Before entering the Orange Harp marketplace, an item must be vetted to ensure its aesthetic quality and ethical production, with particular attention paid to fair working conditions for employees and an accountable supply chain. This is accomplished through three weeks of product testing, interviews and even factory visits by the Orange Harp team.

Those are fairly obvious, if labor-intensive, measures, but it’s only after a product is added to the marketplace that Orange Harp’s innovation really shines: A dedicated pool of users (“40 percent of our customers are repeat customers,” says Anbalagapandian) not only means regular sales, but it also means that many more sets of eyes to keep watch over the brands on Orange Harp. Now you don’t just have customers; you have stakeholders. You have users who want to keep buying but also want their sellers behaving appropriately. You have them scanning the news and social media channels as they regularly would, but you give them the ability to report any misbehavior to the marketplace.

“The minute any of our users get to know that [the brands] aren’t following the practices that they promise, we will take them off our app,” says Anbalagapandian.

It’s Orange Harp’s marriage of a socially conscious marketplace with social media’s dynamics — that is, empowering users to affect their ecosystems — that echoes TakePart’s model of journalism-for-action and Fashion Revolution’s online activism/offline lobbying. All three organizations illustrate that social media can improve traceability, and thereby increase how ethical and sustainable the fashion industry is overall, but social media can’t do it alone. It needs passion and innovation to push beyond the realm of mere awareness and into the world of actual solutions.

“Social media can be more powerful,” says Anbalagapandian, and as Orange Harp, TakePart and Fashion Revolution all prove, she’s right.

Images: Linus Bohman, Elijah Van der Giessen, geralt, ErikaWittlieb