Well fashion: for the people, the planet and prosperity
The Fashion industry’s profound influence on mental health necessitates investing in people, not just profits.
Clothing and accessories are more than just items we wear. Studies have revealed that they hold significant psychological and social power over individuals. For instance, research shows how the psychology of color can affect an athlete’s performance. In the 2004 Olympic Games, male and female athletes wearing red scored significantly higher in aggression and dominance than those who wore blue or grey during 1v1 boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle-wrestling matches. Similarly, researchers have coined the term “enclothed cognition” or “embodied cognition” to describe how the clothing we wear influences cognitive processes. One study found that wearing a lab coat improves performance in attention-related activities.
While scientific research has suggested that clothing plays a crucial role in identifying our role and place in society, it remains unclear whether the fashion industry is conscious of its negative impact on mental health and its significance to the business. Though fashion can have many positive effects on mental health, it is crucial to consider the negative effects that the industry may have on mental health as well.
Fashion’s mental health burden
The fashion industry is notorious for its rapid pace, constantly setting new trends and pushing boundaries. These pursuits, however, often come at a high cost to the well-being of those involved in the industry. Low pay and long hours in the fashion industry are taking a mental and physical toll on junior employees, who tolerate the conditions just to be part of the scene, according to Business of Fashion. Sleep deprivation is common, and stress, anxiety, and depression account for 43.8% of all workplace illnesses in the UK, according to Health and Safety Executive. A PR specialist spoke to this reality, describing how during fashion month, she would set her alarm for 4 am and feel like she was working like a machine.
The dangerous tendency starts at the beginning of the value chain, with workers in fashion factories facing inhumane working conditions that can lead to mental health problems. After the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, which killed over 1,000 garment factory workers in Bangladesh, research showed that a high percentage of survivors were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the inhumane working conditions.
Even workers more connected with the creative process are at risk of mental illness, with those working in the creative sectors nearly three times as likely than the general population to suffer from mental illness due to the pressure to reach high standards, irregular work, lack of value on work, and inadequate financial rewards.
The mentality that endangers people’s well-being begins before workers reach the professional world, as evidenced by students at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, one of the world’s most prominent institutions, who claimed states of depression and drug addiction following a student’s suicide in 2018. The teaching style and the system’s pressure on students were called into question.
Eventually, these harmful effects extend to the final step of the value chain, where the industry meets its intended audience: the customers. The industry has had an obsession with unreachable beauty standards and photo editing practices which have led to a rise in disorders like body dysmorphia, anorexia, and bulimia. A recent study even found that fashion models who are used to advertise the collections to the public are forced to put their health and safety at risk to get jobs.
Mental health risks are a pervasive issue throughout the fashion industry and require both a humanitarian and financial approach. This matter is not only relevant to the industry but also essential to all stakeholders in the value chain. Interestingly, it appears that what’s good for the mind is good for the wallet. The cost of mental illness to enterprises is estimated to be about $1.62 million annually for a company with approximately 1,000 employees. This is due to decreased productivity caused by low mood, sleep difficulties, and high levels of stress.
Elevating well-being and mental health in the fashion industry can generate positive outcomes for both stakeholders and the business. Here are three ways fashion players can begin investing in this field.
Fostering well-being from within
One viable solution for fashion companies is to partner with wellness start-ups and establish internal well-being programs that support employees and address mental illnesses related to the workplace, such as depression, anxiety, and stress. For instance, Farfetch collaborated with Unmind, a mental health platform that provides resources and tools to improve mental health. The partnership between Farfetch and Unmind in 2020 demonstrated the positive impact of such initiatives on promoting well-being and productivity, with 71% of program participants experiencing a reduction in stress levels.
Empowering a positive mental state
Another approach involves investing in a solution that benefits not only employees but also customers. Madhappy, a fashion brand founded in 2017 with a focus on creating conversations around mental health, strives to raise awareness about well-being among its consumers. The brand established an online collaborative called “The Local Optimist,” which curates activities and practical toolkits to promote positive messaging. By taking this approach, the brand becomes a leading advocate of positive messaging around mental health, connecting its values to a more meaningful effort for its audiences beyond profit.
Self-care is the best investment
A broader impact can be achieved by investing in external wellness initiatives. This third strategy involves donating to and supporting specific foundations that combat mental health issues, thereby building awareness beyond the company’s own employees and customers. Kate Spade is an example of a brand that began a relationship with mental health awareness programs following the founder’s suicide due to depression and anxiety. In 2018, the company donated $1 million to mental health charities in honor of their founder, positively influencing the lives of many who may not have been reached by the brand’s products or communications.
Well fashion: a holistic approach that pays off
Globally, mental disorders cause the loss of 12 billion working days annually, resulting in a colossal $1 trillion loss. While the fashion industry only accounts for a fraction of this, taking action and implementing effective strategies to address this issue can help create a more serene community for us to live in. And it’s sustainable, aligning with the principles that consider economic, environmental, and social factors and emphasize the importance of investing in the three P’s: people, planet, and prosperity.
 “Wear Red and You’ll Win Gold.” Available at: https://www.samford.edu/sports-analytics/fans/2017/Wear-Red-and-Youll-Win-Gold#:~:text=Their%20research%20found%20that%20both,athletes%20in%20blue%20or%20grey.
 “Embodied Cognition.” Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/embodied-cognition/
 “The prevalence and risk factors of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among workers injured in Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh.” Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25964138/
 “Research finds high levels of mental ill health in the creative industries in NI.” Available at: https://www.ulster.ac.uk/news/2018/march/research-finds-high-levels-of-mental-ill-health-in-the-creative-industries-in-ni
 “Antwerp Academy Student Suicide Calls Teaching Methods into Question.” Available at: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/antwerp-academy-student-suicide-calls-teaching-methods-into-question/
 “Results of a strategic science study to inform policies targeting extreme thinness standards in the fashion industry.” Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.22682
 Unmind organization. Available at: https://unmind.com/
 Company site: https://www.localoptimist.com/about
 “The Kate Spade brand is donating $1 million to mental health organizations.” Available at: https://www.businessinsider.nl/kate-spade-brand-donates-1-million-to-mental-health-organizations-2018-6?international=true&r=US
 “Mental Health at Work.” Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-at-work
Author: Giuseppe Scandariato
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