The main goal of the ethical fashion movement is to make ethical fashion look normal. Sustainable fashion brands know that they cannot hide their “earthy” brand image and are determined to avoid being labeled as such. Although the conversation has shifted from body image and ethnicity to what it does to consumers’ self-esteem and how ethical fashion looks, there is one area where ethical fashion can look just like any other fashion and that is photo editing. Many ethical brands’ images will mimic traditional fashion in terms of who wears the clothes. Often, this is a young, slim, mostly white woman, many of whom are cisgender. Even when there are steps taken to include all people, it is rare to see “imperfections” such as wrinkles, acne, or stretch marks.
France passed a law that required fashion brands to disclose their photo editing practices. Norway has a law that requires influencers and bloggers to identify any photos that were retouched. This law is intended to enhance the body image and offer a more authentic experience. Is labelling enough? The University of Warwick’s Fiona McCallum, Heather Widows and Heather Widows conducted a study called Altered Images. Understanding the impact of unrealistic images and beauty aspirations on our bodies, we found that there has been a rise in body dissatisfaction, with both men and women feeling unhappy about their appearances. If their customers don’t feel confident about shopping with them, it is difficult to call the experience ethical.
Aerie, a lingerie brand, was one that quickly caught on. Their president Jennifer Foyle told Business Insider that Aerie’s models were no longer airbrushed in the company’s offices. This led to a change in policy regarding models’ bodies. Aerie is a lingerie brand so they were always under scrutiny. Foyle told Business Insider that “We just knew it would really resonate” with this generation. “Why would they airbrush these models?” They are beautiful as they are. Foyle’s bold idea paid off. Aerie’s sales rocketed after this bold move. Critics pointed out that Aerie avoided retouching, despite their best intentions. Aerie chose models who were already beautiful according to mainstream standards. They were white, thin, young, tall and able-bodied.
This gave rise to the notion that these women are naturally flawless and don’t require airbrushing. Referring to McCallum and Widows’ study, this is how body image can be negatively affected by labelling: When confronted with an image of a beautiful woman and reminded that she hadn’t been retouched at all, it’s easy to feel the bitter taste of unfavorable comparisons. This factor is being included by some eco-conscious fashion companies. Birdsong, a London-based brand, has sustainability and feminism at its core. They are also one of very few sustainable fashion brands that refuse to use Photoshop to alter models’ appearances. Eco Warrior Princess co-founder Sophie Slater says, “We created this policy in 2014 when the company was founded.” Our brand was founded on these values because we both have a history in feminist activism and women’s charities.
We didn’t know how to use Photoshop at first, as we were a small team that did everything. We may now use Photoshop to clean up background images but we never used Photoshop to model our models.” Birdsong’s models are people they know, giving their brand a more personal touch. “We have photographed on our friends and people we admire since the beginning, and we don’t want to promote unrealistic beauty standards.” Birdsong has some company in the Photoshop-free ethical fashion landscape, but only a small one. Airbrushed Apparel does not sound like it. All images used by the sustainable fashion company are unaltered by Photoshop. Mia Lewin, founder of Airbrushed Apparel, told Eco Warrior Princess that the brand was created after being exposed to the modeling industry. She said that the company used Photoshop to create images without altering the appearance of models.
Birdsong is an ethical fashion label and does not use photo editing software like Photoshop. The potential harm to women in the industry is real. Amber Tolliver, a model, has said that retouching is a serious attack on the person you are. It’s like, “If I’m poor enough or not beautiful enough, why’d I book you?” Tolliver’s words show that not only are the consumers being hurt by the unrealistic and unethical beauty standards that photo editing creates. It is not surprising that these images can also harm those who are featured in them. We need to change the way we view models. Instead of seeing them as products, we should re-humanize them. Birdsong certainly has done this. Slater says, “It’s not in our ethics make anyone look different.” “We chose our models intentionally because they inspire us. They are our customers, colleagues, community, and friends.”