Self-Regulation in the Fashion Industry: Too-Skinny Models

They used to say that you can never be too rich or too thin. I guess one out of two ain’t bad, at least in the fashion industry.
The fashion industry has long been criticized for demanding of its models, and hence promoting among fashion-conscious women & girls, a standard of thinness that is both unrealistic and dangerous. In September, organizers of Madrid Fashion Week announced that they would no longer contribute to the trend, and would in fact ban models whose Body Mass Index fell below the level associated with good health.

Now, another industry group has joined in, according to this story from the NY Times: U.S., Italy Addressing the Health of Models

…representatives of the Italian government and its fashion trade group, the Camera Nazionale, said this week that they would promote a national campaign against anorexia and what they described as “a national manifesto of self-regulation.” Independently the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the trade group based in New York, plans to address the issue with a response that has not been formalized.

Why is this story — a story from the NY Times “Fashion & Style” section — a business ethics issue? Well, first let’s establish that it’s a business story: the fashion industry is clearly a huge business, big enough that the new move by the Council of Fashion was actually first reported in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s a story about business ethics because it’s about companies, through their industry organization, taking action to change behaviour that has been subject to reasoned criticism in the past.

Two main business ethics issues arise here.
One is a matter of, for lack of a better term, workplace health & safety. Anorexia Nervosa — the world’s most deadly psychiatric illness — is said to be relatively common among models, and even models who don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for Anorexia can suffer significantly negative health impacts from being underweight. As the Times story notes, two models have died this year already. Some will say ‘but wait!’…this is all voluntary, right? Models get paid a lot of money, and if in return they have to meet certain physical standards, even dangerous physical standards, at least it’s voluntary. Lots of people have dangerous jobs. We don’t forbid that, so long as the decision to take such jobs is free & informed. Being a model is, in this sense, like being a coal-miner. Right? No. That argument is faulty, and the analogy is misleading. While it’s true that we do acknowledge that some jobs are more dangerous than others, and that people may freely choose to do those jobs in return for the right combination of pay, job satisfaction, etc., we none the less require that employers do what they can, within reason, to reduce risks. So in wealthy, industrialized nations, at least, we condone the still-dangerous work that miners do partly because the operators of coal mines have put in place a wide range of safety measures to make coal-mining as safe as it could reasonably be. (No endorsement of the mining industry is implied, here: I’m just saying the dangers of coal mining are not without limit.) So, likewise, the fashion industry is obligated to take reasonable steps to keep its workers safe.

The other issue here is a question of social impact. Fashion models set the beauty standard — no, they are the beauty standard — for millions of women and girls. To keep things simple, let’s avoid competent adults and focus on teen girls. The faces and bodies that teenage girls see on magazine covers and on TV footage of the runways of Paris, Milan and New York are bound to influence how they feel, how they act, how they eat. Of course, we can only hold the fashion industry responsible for so much. Evidence of a direct link between fashion industry standards and teenage Anorexia is hard to come by. None the less, it seems naive to imagine there’s no impact at all (even if the impact is limited to adding to the already-significant burden of teenage angst). So at least with regard to the vulnerable teen portion of their audience, it’s at least plausible that the fashion industry has an obligation to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Finally, note also the significance of collective action in this story. Changing corporate behaviour is difficult when doing so implies a competitive disadvantage. If, for whatever reason, people in the industry see skinny models as central their success, it will be hard for any one company to deviate from the norm, for fear that other companies (other design houses, in this case) will gain a market advantage. So it’s essential in cases like this that change happen more-or-less in unison. Industry self-regulation is one way to achieve that. Government regulation is the other.

(I swear that it’s pure coincidence that this blog has featured photos of models two weeks in a row. I don’t make up the business ethics news, I just blog about it.)

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