Here’s why sustainable fashion needs more stories, less facts

When a new brand reaches out to me, I always try to get them on a call. For many reasons really but among others, to understand what they struggle with.


While I don’t keep a record of it, I’d say that at least 1 out of 3 times the person I’m talking with would say that their biggest struggle is to make people care.


How can people care about where their clothes come from as much as we do? How can we make them care about things like worker’s rights or reducing fashion’s carbon footprint? How can we make them see what the problem is?


It’s not just the brands I talk with. Many activists, researchers, and thinkers wonder the same. Heck, I wonder the same all the time!


Caring isn’t a one-dimensional thing. It’s not a single feeling or a thought process, so don’t expect any easy answers. However, I’d like to propose an idea that could be helpful. I’d like to encourage you to put an emphasis on stories over facts.


And I’ll explain why.


But a quick note before this: I use the terms “sustainable fashion”, “ethical fashion”, and “slow fashion”, interchangeably. I am aware of the differences between them but for me: they should all come together. In other words, there’s no sustainable fashion without ethics and without slow production. The same goes the other way around. Ok, now that we cleared that out, we can continue.


A wooden table with an open book and a terrarium on it. Behind it is an empty blue sofa.
I encourage you to tell stories, more than facts. Let me explain why...


Facts about facts

If you glance over my Instagram profile, you’ll see me often sharing some fashion-related facts. For example, that about 80% of garment workers are women or that up to 20% of diamonds today come from places of conflict and serious human rights abuses. And many articles I write also include lots of fashion facts, be it about biodiversity, overconsumption, microplastics, or denim. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against facts at all.


Yet, I am careful in how I use them. I don’t believe there is something like a pure fact. After all, facts are one representation of reality, and they always show what can be measured with standard measuring tools. I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as objective reality, a universal truth. What we usually call facts are statements about and interpretations of reality but not the whole reality. The most important thing to remember is that the numbers and percentages we can see are the only things we can measure. And our measuring tools change and depend on who is using them.


I’ll give you an example. It has to do with a fact that the fashion industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions. If you’ve been into sustainable fashion for a while, I bet you heard that one before.


However, as Alden Wicker breaks it down in her insightful article for EcoCult, it all depends on which source or research we listen to. Other reports and studies show a different number: from 4.8% to 8% of global carbon emissions. And McKinsey & Global Fashion Agenda came up with yet another number last year: fashion contributes to 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As Alden explains, these reports also measure different things and define the fashion industry differently (for example, cotton production sometimes belongs to the fashion industry but sometimes counts as agriculture). She also claims, and I agree, that these different facts aren’t helpful in the times when we are trying to argue for better policies and regulations, and we should figure out how to better measure fashion’s environmental impact. It’s an interesting discussion on its own.


A carboard piece put on a chair that says: Less New = Less CO2. There are also other boards saying: Sustainable Fashion Matterzz and We never stop voting
Photo by Cherie Birkner on Unsplash

But you can see 2 things from this example. The first one is that many things aren’t easy to measure and put into facts. Fashion is a complex industry, culture, history, art, philosophy, and much more. It’s not a simple thing to observe. And the second thing is about the truth. All the facts I mentioned about the C02 emissions are equally true and false, depending on the report. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them but we need to use them with this in mind. When I mention that the industry generates about 20% of the global wastewater, I don’t mean it as the ultimate truth. I wouldn’t be surprised to find some researches that show some other number, which is a reason why you should always link the resource to any such claim you use.


But there’s still a reason why I use facts.


We still want facts though…

They are useful to bring a context, give us an idea about an issue in question and make us aware of an issue in the first place.


Before I got into sustainable fashion, I sort of knew that human rights abuses are happening. Most people, including me, have heard about sweatshops before. Such issues aren’t anything new to brands: remember Nike’s sweatshop scandal in the 1990s? Yet, I thought that these things are rare in fashion, they are only extremes. Learning that there are an estimated 40.3 million people are currently living in slavery taught me to think otherwise, and today I know that human rights abuse is a norm in the industry. I’ll come back to this shortly.


What I want to say is that facts are useful tools for us to talk about an issue, and especially the scale of the issue. They can be a way to spread awareness, capture attention and even change someone’s mind. So to say that 80% of garment workers are women, allows us to understand that fashion is a feminist issue and that, if we speak of fashion, we need to take gender into account. A fact about blood diamonds can (and should) open a conversation about ongoing (neo)colonialism in the industry. And to say that our clothes contribute to over a third (35%) of microplastics in the oceans is a way of talking about how everything is interconnected in this world. Those are just some possibilities really. Facts have a role and can be effective.


That is if they don’t come alone.


Why facts can be contra-productive

If you ever felt overwhelmed by fashion and its enormous impact, you’ll understand what I’m about to say. And trust me, I feel overwhelmed by fashion all the time.


Whether fashion produces 3.9 billion tons or 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2e (yes, there’s “tons” and “tonnes”), it’s a lot. Most of us can’t really imagine what this really means. While some comparisons and images are useful and may help us imagine, they are not quite enough. For example, it’s interesting to know that we lose three-square-meters of ice per ton of CO2 emitted. So, we lose a lot of ice because of the fashion industry alone. Once again, it tells us about a scale (and the urgency) of the problem but it still feels far, doesn’t it?


It can feel even more alienating when we talk about the direct human impact of fashion. Last year, when the pandemic first hit and brands cancelled their orders, they were owning collectively over $40 billion worth of wages to the garment workers. I don’t know about you, but I have difficulties imagining this amount of money. Yet, what this number meant is millions of workers left out without any money, protection, or savings, in the middle of a global health crisis. I’m glad to see that the #PayUp campaign was largely successful and most brands eventually committed to paying their debt. Yet, here’s where a lot of people can feel paralysed: it is about millions of garment workers. We simply feel difficulties acting against something so big.


We may assume that the bigger the number is the more people will care. And while it’s important to show a magnitude of events like cancelled orders, studies show the opposite: numbers fail to trigger the emotion necessary to motivate action. We humans have evolved in a way where we care about the things that are in front of us. When you meet someone in a difficult position, you might start to care and do something about it. But when there’s yet another person and another, and then thousands and millions of people who are in the same difficult position, it’s hard to process this information. Not because we are bad or lack a moral sense. It is because of psychophysical numbing: a term for a phenomenon where we start to value life less, as the number of suffering people grows. We can care about an individual with a face, name, history, and personality. But, as one study expresses: numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives.


Statistics and numbers tell us a lot, but they don’t tell us about the people behind them.

The same can be said for endangered animals, melting icebergs, or shrinking rainforests. The big numbers and facts don’t really communicate the value and consequences of the beings and ecosystems. They are easier to dismiss, and can actually make us feel powerless.


That is where the power of stories lies.



Person's hand sticking out of sea, as a sign of help
Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

The power of stories

Earlier I mentioned how I sort of knew that slavery and human rights abuse happens in fashion but thought it was a rare thing. I didn’t quite care about it, I was sure it wasn’t a big deal. Until I had one of the most important calls in my life.


About 4-5 years ago, I was a part of a small NGO, and we somehow got a chance to have a Skype call with Nasreen Sheikh. Nasreen is a survivor of modern slavery, social entrepreneur, and activist. She is also a person who changed my life. In the 60-or-so-minutes of the call, Nasreen shared her story of how she worked in a factory as a child, her escape, and her advocacy for others since. In case you’re interested, I recommend watching her TedTalk. It wasn’t the fact that there are over 40 million people in slavery that made me see the problem, it was Nasreen.


But even more: she made me care. After the call, I clearly remember looking at my fast fashion clothes and wondering if she or girls like her made them. Not long after this call, I was in an H&M store and I remember holding nervously a dress I liked. I walked out of that store empty-handed because I just couldn’t risk buying something that was made in sweat and blood. I understand now that I probably couldn’t truly care about millions of people but I could care about those I met.


And this is sometimes enough. For me, it was enough to start re-evaluating my fashion (and other) choices and learn more because of one story. When you think about it, it makes sense. Storytelling is how people have communicated for millenniums. Telling stories makes us human. Stories carry lessons, emotions, histories, and relationships. We have always been telling stories, we just invented different ways of doing so.


For this reason, whether you’re an ethical brand, an activist, teacher, parent, artist, or anyone who cares about fashion and wants others to care: find a way to tell stories. Use the facts when you need to show a scale or make a further argument but use stories to communicate why. This is also the reason why I believe in the power of clothes in particular: our clothes carry the stories and they connect to us intimately. Anyone who wears clothes can understand that the issues you’d like to talk about are a part of their life. But more about that some other time.


A photo of an open book, sourounded by plants
Write a good story and make people care.

I’d love to hear what story made you care!


Oh and, in case you need help with your storytelling, drop me a message!