Eco Fashion

What’s the greater risk: Nonylphenolethoxylate or showing your knickers at the Oscars?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013 | Our Philosophy | 1 Comment

This blog post originally appeared on the ThreeWorlds website

Here’s a values dilemma.

When Bond-girl and Pirates of the Caribbean actress Naomie Harris previewed an eco-dress for The Oscars, a slew of mainstream media and blogs like The Daily MailOMG Yahoo, and The Sun all ran the story, leading on the risk of ‘the split’ showing her knickers.

Deep in the background, behind the role of designers Michael Badger and Vivienne Westwood, who had created the dress under the wing of ‘Red Carpet Green Dress’ ‘an international dress design contest started by Suzy Amis Cameron, environmental advocate and wife of Director James Cameron’, Greenpeace had a hand in the process through it’s Detox campaign. Its own blog by campaigner Valeria Botte Coca announced ‘Bond Girl helps Detox the Oscars’.

When I looked, the Greenpeace post had received two comments, one of which read:

“Hausson says: I’d love to know the Nonylphenolethoxylate content of this dress.  That would really increase your transparency, which at the moment is kind of dubious.”

Well yes and no but thanks Hausson because you’ve crystallised the dilemma which faces campaigners from ethically motivated Pioneer-dominated organisations when they need to influence Prospectors, and you can’t get a lot more Prospector than the fashion industry, celebrity and The Oscars. Namely, can you, should you, get involved in a way that works?


The Prospectors
Who are Prospectors? They are 60-75% of the population of China and India, the majority in most emerging economies and the epitomy of the fun-loving success oriented mainstream in any country. In terms of change, if the Prospectors embrace “sustainability”, it will happen, and can happen fast: if they don’t, it won’t.

Are they interested? Well yes, multi-country surveys we’ve been running for Greenpeace (no, I didn’t work on the Detox campaign) show again and again that the Prospectors, at least the uber-fashion conscious Now People Prospector Values Mode, are as keen to be ‘green’ as anyone but it has to be in a way that meets their values.

That’s where groups like Red Carpet Green DressGlobal Cool and JoinRed are on the money by starting-from-where-the-audience-is. Because ‘looking good’ and having a good time is truly important, it means that the biggest risk for Naomie Harris at the Oscars really was the “cringe pants flash” and not actually, the possible presence of Nonylphenolethoxylate.


Disaster Averted
Fortunately in this case, as the celeb media noted, disaster was averted: ‘Bond girl Naomie risks Oscars wardrobe malfunction in golden slit dress’ but Naomie managed to keep her modestly very much covered as she walked the red carpet.

In terms of environmental outcomes, what we’re seeing here is the fruits of a long struggle by campaigners, concerned scientists and other very Pioneer groups to recognize the threats posed by toxic pollution and get substances such as Nonylphenolethoxylate phased out. Plus a realisation that the way to do it isn’t always by simply talking about the need to do it.

The use of non-toxic and organic materials in Naomie’s dress was combined with re-use of materials. This enabled several media bloggers to focus on the more-interesting-to-us  question of whether she had eaten the chocolates that were once in the candy wrappers used in the golden garment: a good example of ‘being interesting’, not just significant.

The trend for re-use (upcycling, embellishment, swishing etc) of materials in fashion has been discussed at this site previously, as an example of something mainstreaming; spreading from Pioneer to Prospector audiences. The Now People bible Grazia magazine pointed out that alongside Naomie, a rival ‘green’ dress appeared at the Oscars, one from Prospector retail brand H & M, worn by Helen Hunt. Grazia wrote:

“So as well as Stella McCartney visibly leading the way with her sustainable fabrics and (sexy) vegan shoes, Sophia Kokosalaki launched an ethically conscious capsule range on ASOS called Kore and the website’s existing Africa range is top notch trend-ticking stuff.

We’ve noticed a real rise in upcycling (using existing clothing to create new pieces), but it’s high fashion labels like Edun (designed by Bono’s wife Ali Hewson), Suno, Henrietta Ludgate and Ada Zandition that are leading the way. Many more brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Vivienne Westwood are following suit, and starting to dip into the sustainable sphere with dedicated sub ranges or accessory lines. Watch this space ladies, sustainable fashion just got serious.” 

Converting ‘an issue’ into a story about real people doesn’t just attract Prospectors. The Daily Mail has a lot of Settler readers, too and older women across the board, as perhaps reflected in its tetchy headline “She’d better be wearing granny pants!” and the Mail managed to convert the green dimension to a grumble: “While it might be revealing, the dress itself is at least good for the environment – it is made from recycled materials”.

Similarly, the Huffington Post, much loved by Pioneer posters, reportedprudishly “Naomie Harris’ Oscar Dress Features Way Too Much Leg For Our Comfort”. For other eco-fashion coverage of that dress, which would be read by younger Pioneers and Prospectors see Ecorazzi and RollingOut.  Meanwhile Michael Badger’s involvement spread the story to ghanaweb.com: Ghanaian designs Naomie Harris’ 2013 Oscar dress. For a Pioneeresque report on the ‘bigger picture’ see the “back story” in LA Times.


Strategy Questions
Clearly, The Oscars are not an opportunity for an ecotoxicology lecture, and Greenpeace’s GP Detox campaign has been amazingly successful, using a mixture of classic Pioneer protest tactics and Prospector-slanted communications. BrandChannel reported a month or two ago that it rolled over retail giant Zara in just nine days, leaving Benetton, C&A, Calvin Klein, Diesel, Emporio Armani, Esprit, Gap, Levi’s, Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret, and China’s Meters/bonwe apparel brand on the ‘Toxic Threads blacklist’.

So whether its’ about health or human rights or environment, Pioneer type campaign groups can deploy strategy to catalyse and cascade change through other more Prospector messengers, actors and channels which mainstream the change.  So long as they resist the Nonylphenolethoxylate-temptation (N-factor?), it can work.

Yet there’s a political and social limitation in such strategic stealth. If you want to have political clout, to play an active role in social conversations that reach beyond the “usual suspects”, and to ‘mobilise’ society more widely, you need to develop the capability to talk to Prospectors, Settlers and Pioneers.

Many Pioneers may take the view that it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, so long as you get the result and that is often true but Prospectors in general, do not see it that way, and if you need to enlist them, that’s a problem. Prospectors err more to the Oscar Wilde view that “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. So by not publicising its role in achieving success, any organisation robs its followers, especially Prospectors, of the chance to bask in reflected glory, and it denies them the opportunity to pass on the good news.

For all Pioneer-dominated groups seeking change, this is the real dilemma: it is sometimes possible to be simply too serious-minded.

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