Those interested in sustainable fashion may have heard the term “greenwashing,” the act of irresponsibly using environmentalism as marketing. The phrase was born out of companies jumping on the “green” bandwagon as a result of the environmental movement that built momentum in the mid-’60s. Soon after, it was labeled by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry Mander as “ecopornography.”
A term with similar corporate motives is “woke-washing,” where ethically problematic companies use social movements to increase sales without addressing how their business is complicit. In mid-2020, the term gained momentum after being the focus of a Slow Factory Foundation’s open education program, with an online lecture from Aja Barber, a writer and consultant focusing on fashion’s intersections with feminism, race, and colonization. Barber compared woke-washing to wokeness as greenwashing is to actual eco policies. “I absolutely expect ‘woke-washing’ to become a household term, especially since ‘greenwashing’ is starting to become exactly that,” she told Teen Vogue. In the fashion industry, woke-washing can look like Kendall Jenner’s controversial Pepsi commercial, co-opting protest movements and not treating the issue of police brutality in the U.S. with the weight it deserves. Yet Barber says woke-washing extends far beyond the Black Lives Matter movement. “Pride has been co-opted for years.”
It’s something she’s deeply aware of, giving examples in our society of the co-opting by brands of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It would seem everyone pretends to stand with Black people while never actually offering the type of support that Black people want or need,” she says. “I found all the Black Squares in June [of 2020] to be more of the same but even more sinister because it was really churning the social media algorithm, which is frankly about marketing more than anything else.”
Céline Semaan, executive director of Slow Factory Foundation, also lists the black square social media moment as one that made the “continued tokenization of the BIPOC community” even more apparent. With Slow Factory’s Open Education sessions, Semaan hopes to focus on best practices and encourage corporations to do better rather than to “cancel and diss.”
Woke-washing is bigger than just one company’s actions and a major part of white supremacy, says Barber. “Marginalized people are still not included while having their movements commodified for mass consumption,” she explains. Arguably, this is evident through the fast-fashion brands that don’t adequately address their workers’ rights concerns. According to Fashion Revolution, there are 75 million textile workers worldwide and approximately 80% of them are women between the ages of 18 and 35.
Identifying and discussing the term woke-washing is an important part of confronting the issue and finding solutions, Barber says. With this new language, she encourages readers to “look at what the brands are actually doing for the people who make their garments,” as a way to avoid falling into the trap of woke-washing in fashion. “I tell people to hold brands accountable and look for proof of good deeds instead of fancy marketing surrounding good deeds,” she says. “Once you start to look for this stuff, it becomes easier to sort truth from nonsense.”