Sep 25, 2023
by Karl Smith
Fashion Innovation Vs. Fashion Activism – Do We Have To Choose?
by Karl Smith
Sep 25, 2023

Earlier this month, during New York Fashion Week, PETA crashed the runway. Specifically, the group – full name, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – targeted COACH’s Spring/Summer 2024 presentation for its use of leather. More broadly, the organization took aim at the fashion industry as a whole.

This is nothing new. From either side, in fact, it’s par for the course: brands use materials obtained through a process causing harm and death to animals, PETA protests that process. Sometimes – as with Canada Goose and its use of fur, for example – things change. Sometimes, likely more often than not, they don’t.

This says nothing about the righteousness of PETA’s actions – nothing about whether the activism is a just cause or not – and more about the fashion industry’s total unwillingness to change. Or, at least, an unwillingness to change on anything but its own terms.

But something has changed – or feels like it’s changing, anyway – and it relates to that last part; to those terms and to fashion’s distaste for what it perceives to be outside pressure.

PETA’s methods have long been divisive, variously described as graphic, sensationalist and misogynistic by critics even in the most ardently vegan circles. Nevertheless, it has always seemed that most people aligned with the organization’s cause, in terms of the broad strokes, have historically found themselves nodding in agreement with the sentiment of the group’s work.

This, however, no longer seems to be the case.

With the rapid surge in quality and availability of innovative new materials to replace leather in the fashion industry, the tide looks to be turning in favor of innovation and – as a result – against activism.

Critics of PETA – and we’re talking about people with serious anti-cruelty credentials, not some pro-fur and pro-leather cranks – are now suggesting that the organization’s approach lacks foresight and consideration; that it is too focused on one area without thought about how that entwines with another.

There are questions, all of a sudden, as to why PETA doesn’t seem to see the dangers of plastics – doesn’t seem to care how its mission has led to an industry overrun with disastrous polyurethane products claiming to be “vegan” because they’re not directly made from animals – and how those might, in their own way, have an effect on the planet and its animal inhabitants.

And there are questions, too, about whether PETA’s shock tactics are likely to further alienate the fashion industry – pushing them into a defensive corner, rather than into the kind of open dialogue that might encourage positive change.

In terms of the latter, Emma Hakansson, Director and Founder of Collective Fashion Justice, comes down on the side or urgent, high-impact action. “In a climate and wider ecological crisis that’s inextricably linked to a crisis of ethics, we can’t wait around and hope for change. We need to create it,” Hakansson tells FUTUREVVORLD. “Without cultural change that demands an industry shift, and without legislation which mandates progress the industry wouldn’t yet willingly make, these crises are sticking around, and we can’t accept that.”

“The best way to change anything is not by force or from the outside – it is by collaboration, open discussions and brining solutions to their problems.” – Dr. Carmen Hijosa, Founder and Chief Creative and Innovation Officer at Ananas Anam

“I think we can change industries we are not a part of ourselves, absolutely, and there’s absolutely no doubt that pressure campaigns and disruption has done so in the past, and continues to,” Hakansson adds, before noting that activism and protest are not in opposition to more quiet forms of progress. “I think different forms of outreach work as an ecosystem, and those considered more ‘radical’ can make way for those that feel more inviting to the industry.”

All of which not only raises the question of whether these critiques of organizations like PETA and their tactics are fair, but also of whether we should have to make a hard distinction at all; whether we should have to choose between activism and innovation – to see them as opposing forces; one moralistic and one pragmatic – or whether they’re simply two sides of the same progressive coin.

Moreover, it raises the question of who, exactly, severing the ties between them and fostering this kind of division actually serves.

For PETA’s part, the point is clear: “PETA’s mission is to get the animal rights message out to as many people as possible, and protesting is a great way to spread the word,” explains Senior Media and Campaigns Manager Anissa Putois. “It’s sometimes necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion and debate and encourage people to question the status quo and, of course, take action.”

But, Putois notes, PETA campaigns don’t start and end with disruption in the literal sense. “Campaigns run by PETA entities worldwide have included actions such as catwalk takeovers, store protests,” she confirms, following up with the lesser-known fact that the organization is also involved in “buying shares in companies to encourage them to replace animal skins with cruelty-free, vegan alternatives.”

All of which not only aligns PETA with material innovation companies in spirit but also in practice, as a financial backer to the next-gen sector.

This makes sense – if PETA wants change, it has to provide answers, not just ask the questions. “PETA works from the inside, too,” Putois affirms, “And collaborating with brands that are pioneering vegan fashion is a great way of effecting change.”

Others, though, aren’t quite so effusive about the protest element.

Joey Pringle, co-founder of the planet-friendlier manufacturer Veshin Factory, recounts the perceived futility of his own past life as an activist: “Protest really achieves nothing in my opinion,” he offers, asked whether these kinds of public-facing demonstrations offer any kind of tangible solution. “I’ve been there, done it, and just pissed people off and hurt myself,” he says, “We need the Joey Carbstrongs, the Earthling Eds of the world to create a little voice. But, for the most part, especially with what PETA does, it just slows down the process of change.”

Of course, not everyone shares Pringle’s viewpoint. Not even everyone inside of the fashion industry.

“I think it’s important to lead by example where possible and above everything, whatever your position – brand, customer, activist etc. – you need to be part of the conversation.” – Christopher Raeburn, Founder & Creative Director at RÆBURN

As a counterpoint, circularity expert Paul Foulkes-Arellano offers that, “Nothing happens without protest. Protests differ every decade. Activists stick their necks on the chopping block, and that spurs on solutions developers like me.”

“If it weren’t for Emily Williamson,” Foulkes-Arellano notes, “we’d still be sticking the feathers of endangered birds in hats.”

What Foulkes-Arellano points to, instead, is a kind of miscommunication between protest and other progressive forces. “The truth is that commentators generally have no knowledge of past protest, and no idea of the sheer number of decades required to change attitudes,” he suggests, alluding to the difference in speed between material innovation and change in societal conscience. “Activists are not there to produce solutions, their role is to catalyse change.”

Focused on more sustainable, more circular projects in his own work, the London-based designer Christopher Raeburn also tends to agree with Foulkes-Arellano’s point of view: “My observation is that activists are often incredibly well read, well researched and often have viable alternatives to the thing they’re protesting against,” Raeburn says, before following up with a pointed addendum, “Or perhaps that thing isn’t needed at all.”

From the material innovation side, too, Dr. Carmen Hijosa – founder of Ananas Anam, creator of the fruit-based leather alternative Piñatex – also speaks positively when it comes to the power of protest. “Protest brings awareness to the problem, and places it into the general public arena,” Dr. Hijosa says, “into the lives of people at the end of the line, who need to make a decision on buying this thing or that. And it works.”

Integral to this conviction, though, is the idea that protest – while practical in its own way – is not enough in and of itself.

“The brands need solutions,” she says, “They are all aware of their unsustainable practices at one level or another – but it takes more. It takes a wake-up call to their conscience – to awaken their sense of right and wrong, responsibility and impact. This is where innovative, companies like Ananas Anam come to the fore – with transparent and ethical supply chains, and our care and support for the people we work with and collaborate.”

“At the end of the day,” Dr. Hijosa concludes, “design is not just about product. Design is about responsibility.”

“To do nothing does not bring a solution – climate crisis is an ethical crisis, and brands are part of the climate crisis.” – Dr. Carmen Hijosa, Founder and Chief Creative and Innovation Officer at Ananas Anam

As the author of a new book, “Total Ethics Fashion,” and the head of an organization dedicated to campaigning for a better fashion industry, Emma Hakansson also weighs in here. Not only in favor of activism, as you might expect, but also, once again, against the idea of dividing progress between outside pressure and inside interests.

“There’s a reason Collective Fashion Justice as a charity considers itself ‘a part of the fashion industry, which loves fashion, but that wants it to radically change’… I don’t think there is an ‘outside’ when we consider that we are all on this planet together, we are all animals — we forget that sometimes — and our wellbeing is interconnected,” Hakansson explains, before picking up the thread to caveat her position. “That said, I think that it can be challenging for the fashion industry to feel willing to listen to an individual or an organisation if industry members don’t feel that individual respects the creativity of the industry, or its value.”

“I respect the creativity of fashion, but not the harm and destruction it’s consistently manifested through, that ultimately diminishes the artistic value and beauty of it,” she concludes with a sense of evenhandedness.

Explaining the organization’s less nuanced methodology, however, Putois notes that “Shock tactics are an important part of PETA’s protesting methods that allow us to engage effectively with the public and grab their attention. PETA’s recent actions… turned a lot of heads and got conversations started across the fashion industry – and this is how change happens.”

Pringle, though, isn’t so sure. “If you go into a McDonalds, protesting and shouting, shaming and hating on a human for eating a Big Mac, a few things will happen. They will tell you to fuck off, punch you, feel like shit inside and go home most likely in shock with all the negativity,” he says, before moving on to explain his preference for a more solutions– and dialogue-based tack.

“If you go into a McDonalds operating on the higher state of consciousness, sit down next to someone eating the big Mac and say, ‘Hey hope you’re having a lovely day? I see your eating a big Mac and I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on the Beyond Meat Big Mac?’… Then they’ll warm up to the idea of learning more, watching a few documentaries and will start to change. Thats how you change someone if you want to.”

“No one can do everything — I think there’s real value to those who point out problems, and they don’t always need to be the ones with the solutions.” – Emma Hakansson, Founder and Director of Collective Fashion Justice

Is it wrong, then, to assume we can cajole people – or, in fact, an entire industry – into changing how they think?

“No, Pringle says, “it’s not wrong to assume,” but it is wrong, he suggests, to make assumptions about how far that will get us. “As human beings we all believe we have the power to change people and it all comes from a place of wanting to do better. However, can we change their minds this way? No, we can’t.”

From Hakansson’s perspective, though, this isn’t necessarily the way forward. “No one can do everything — I think there’s real value to those who point out problems, and they don’t always need to be the ones with the solutions,” she suggests, pointing to her own work with Collective Fashion Justice.

“We like to do both,” she says, “but advocacy is an ecosystem and different stakeholders fulfil different roles, and that’s hugely important to that ecosystem’s health. We need solutions, but to implement them, we need to understand the problem first. Or else why would we bother changing?”

Another advocate for this more wholistic approach is activist and fair fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna. “Protest that is in solidarity with garment workers and other marginalised communities in the fashion supply chain is categorically not a distraction,” La Manna says, resolute. “When we look back at history, change comes from workers and unions organising, protesting, withholding their labour and people coming together in solidarity to demand better.”

Foulkes-Arellano affirms this way of thinking, name-checking Hakansson and her peers directly: “I went to the launch of the “Total Ethics Fashion” book recently,” he begins, adding not only that, “Emma Hakansson and the young activists are much braver” than he considers himself to be in terms of public defiance, but also that they are integral to his work. “They inspire me,” he says, “to keep investing and working on a more ethical and circular cruelty-free supply chain.”

But what about the other elephant in the room? The one made from fossil-derived plastics?

Whether or not we need to divorce material innovation from activism that usually hinges on animal cruelty, surely there’s an issue in terms of how pushing hard on the latter can disrupt more positive, more forward-thinking change from the former?

“Both are important and both part of the bigger picture,” says Pringle. “One and the same,” agrees Hakansson, going on to ask, “Can we really expect people to want to protect the unthinking but living Earth, if we are unwilling to protect thinking and feeling animals who live as part of it?”

“Veshin has five core values,” Pringle adds, “Sustainability, transparency, next-generation materials (with no harm to animals), giving back/carbon offsetting, meditation and consciousness. When I started the company I asked myself your question. What is more important? Are they equally important? Are they part of the same mission? What should be our focus?”

Pringle’s methodology may be less conventional – his focus is on self-reflection and what can be extrapolated from that – but he reaches the same conclusions as Hakansson on this front.

“When I started meditating and understanding the bigger picture, I saw that all these things are branches from the tree of higher consciousness. And when you start from higher consciousness, you understand how to navigate all problems. Consciousness is key,” he concludes, while Hakansson adds, “The exploitation and destruction in fashion comes from the same root cause, no matter how it looks: workers reduced to machines, animals to objects and landscapes to resources: it’s the commodification of life and the prioritising of profit over that life and our collective wellbeing. The concept of total ethics fashion, the term I coined, is about recognising the need for this collective approach.”

“Protest that is in solidarity with garment workers and other marginalised communities in the fashion supply chain is categorically not a distraction.” – Venetia La Manna, Fair Fashion Campaigner

“Personally I think positive change takes many forms and it can be difficult to prioritise,” says Raeburn, who takes a balanced view when asked about the question of whether the push for a kinder fashion industry for animals and a kinder fashion industry for our planet make for equally important goals. “It would be remiss to say that one concern is more important (or less), as the metrics for comparison are ever changing.”

Dr. Hijosa, too, prefers to operate with the flexibility of this kind of nuance. “They are part of the same mission,” she says, before clarifying her own thoughts as to where and what the industry’s priorities ought to be.

“Even more important,” she says, “is to find balance and a more sustainable way of manufacturing materials. There are plenty of resources in nature that can be used to develop products – such as the waste leaves of pineapple plants [as Ananas Anam does with Piñatex and Piñayarn] – that in most of the cases are burned or left to rot. Valorising these waste streams are beneficial in so many levels from bringing secondary income streams to farmers, creating jobs an helping to reduced CO2 emissions. What is important is to get materials with lower environmental impact while promoting social development.”

On the question of whether PETA’s actions distract – or even detract – from the work being done by material innovators, change being advocated for and achieved from inside the industry, by virtue of collaboration, Hakansson is unequivocal: “Absolutely not,” she says, “Fashion as an industry too often loves to distract from and avoid acknowledgement of its harm — protest refuses to allow that. There’s a very simple way for the fashion industry to see less disruption by activists: taking bold action for people, our fellow animals and the planet. We want the fashion industry, members of it, the public, to endorse the total ethics fashion manifesto as part of that action — agreeing on a North Star for the industry.”

La Manna, too, is clear, concise, and utterly convinced of activism’s part in changing the future. “Protest that is in solidarity with garment workers and other marginalised communities in the fashion supply chain is categorically not a distraction,” she says. “When we look back at history, change comes from workers and unions organising, protesting, withholding their labour and people coming together in solidarity to demand better. If we’re truly looking to change the clothing industry, we need to be de-centring the Global North and looking to the communities who are on the front lines of growing, making and carrying our clothes for the solutions.”

What La Manna also adds here is what PETA has been getting at all along. That, in a kind of strange double-bluff, the idea of distraction is a distraction in and of itself – a sleight of hand by the fashion industry, to keep us looking at only the things they want us to see.

“Fashion as an industry too often loves to distract from and avoid acknowledgement of its harm — protest refuses to allow that.” – Emma Hakansson, Founder and Director of Collective Fashion Justice

“Multinational corporations care more about their image than anything,” La Manna explains, “It’s why the huge profits they earn (through exploiting workers) are spent on greenwashing campaigns. We have the opportunity – thanks in part to social media – to call them out on their human and environmental rights abuses. History has taught us that when we join with our communities to take collective action, change happens.”

Here, Dr. Hijosa’s views also converge with Hakansson and La Manna: “It is one way to bring awareness to causes that need to be pointed out – and the general public, usually, are empathetic,” the material innovation leader explains, her thoughts echoed – as a parting coda – by designer Raeburn, concluding that “Peaceful protest is an important part of society. Passion and positive change is an important thing to encourage.”

The concecus, really, is a simple one: there can be no progress without material innovation and collaboration with the brands who so badly need their processes reformed. Without activism, however – without protest – there is no incentive for the industry to change. To know that there is not only always someone watching but, also, always someone ready and waiting to call out its failings in front of the entire world? For an industry built on optics, that’s the biggest incentive of all.