Role models

Ethical modelling is on the rise. But what is ethical modelling and who’s involved? Good investigates.

Ethical fashion has been around for decades, with designers from Stella McCartney to Katharine Hamnett invested in creating cruelty-free clothes from sustainable materials.

It’s no longer unusual to see vegan leather, organic cotton or sustainable fibres like hemp and Tencel in stores – and in New Zealand, sustainable brands from Kowtow to Maggie Marilyn create highly coveted garments for an adoring audience.

Now, with the rise of ethical modelling, another facet of the fashion world has caught up.

Unethical practices have long been recognised in the modelling universe – think models being forced to adhere to unrealistic physical requirements, tolerate sexual harassment and promote products they might not necessarily believe in.

But ethical modelling sets out to change that.

Modelling with a conscience

The definition of an ethical model is still developing – it’s a new concept! But an ethical model is generally understood to be someone who wishes to make the world a better place through their public profile, work, activism, social media and other platforms.

Ethical models model only in accordance with their own ethical principles – such as sustainability, animal rights, human rights, and diversity – working with clients whose brands they personally support from a values perspective. 

Essentially, an ethical model is someone for whom modelling is not just a job and for whom looks aren’t everything. Ethical models can use their enormous influence to stand up against issues in the industry and beyond.

Kiko Hirakawa

Kiko Hirakawa is an ethical model and founder of Ethical Models, an agency that connects sustainable brands with models who share their values.

What is ethical modelling?

At Ethical Models, I define an ethical model as someone with ethical beliefs and values who wishes to make the world a better place through their work, activism, social media and other platforms. And ethical modelling also includes model agencies treating models ethically.

Why did you start Ethical Models?

The more I worked with sustainable brands as an ethical model, the more questions I received from other models about how they could do the same.

So, I decided to make an ethical model agency to provide opportunities for models with ethical values and beliefs.

The most ethical thing I can do as a booker, I believe, is to let our models express their true self. So we have a variety of models in terms of their race, skin colours, height, weight, disabilities, regions, gender identity etc.

We want them to feel good in their own skin. On top of that, we look for models who are contributing to a better world.

What unethical practices did you experience as a model before starting your own agency? 

When I was 17 and signed with one of the top international model agencies, I was told to lose weight, fix my nose and fix my teeth.

Although I didn’t have a nose job or fix my teeth, I did go on an extreme diet where I only ate an apple and a “salad” (only lettuce) and exercised at the gym for 3 hours every day.

As a result, I became anorexic and was hospitalised. My doctor told me that my heartbeat was 38 beats per min and I could have a heart attack and die anytime if I didn’t start eating.

My recovery was not easy but it was worth it. I learned the importance of loving and putting myself first. I choose to be grateful for everything I went through as it shaped me into the person I am today.

What causes do you believe in?

I believe in kindness towards self, others, animals, and our planet. So I’m an ethical model that values self-love and ethical/vegan/sustainable fashion.

How has your life changed since becoming an ethical model? 

I became more conscious about everything I choose to consume and my purpose. I also learnt to question more instead of believing in what media or people say instantly.

Ngahuia Williams

Ngahuia Williams is a well-known New Zealand model and has been manager director of N Model Management since 2010.

What is ethical modelling?

I wouldn’t want to be the person to define this for others, but I think if we look at morals and ethics for humans and how we see most “goodness” towards others in an industry, that’s a good base to start your own definition of what ethical modelling is (or what it should look like). 

N Management are trying hard to think about our personal values, the safety of our talent in a model capacity, then acting on that. Then there is also the choice of models to decide to associate only with brands or companies that align with their values.

I feel like that has always been an  option for the model and if talent want to control this narrative, I respect their wishes. I am understanding of the label “ethical modelling” and would expect a term like this to be born in a year like 2021, but it’s a new label for a concept or idea that you would hope people are practising to the best of their abilities already. 

Do you think ethical modelling is a good trend for the industry?

I would like to think that all people on the planet right now, especially those who are trading and part of consumerism, will be thinking about their own ethical journeys.

I hope it’s not a trend but a change that we’ll actually stick to, to support our planet. It’s hard for many of us to understand, then implement, change. I believe personal values is where it begins. 

What unethical practices have you experienced as a model?

That’s a really hard question for me to answer. Because what has been normal for me in earlier years is now something I see very differently.

Maybe the exposure to the overproduction of things I don’t feel we need on this planet?

Because I think this way, it can be very hard sometimes. There’s a big conflict in my brain, given I work in the consumerism wheel. 

What causes do you believe in? 

I believe that we’ve really lost touch with our true natural obligations to care for this Earth. I believe in the natural world being the biggest treasure we have and I support anyone who is out there preserving what we have.

What do you do to look after yourself? Any self-care practices?

I try to understand when things are overwhelming and my sub-conscious and conscious minds are not aligned and regulate that with breath work. 

Anne Therese Gennari

Anne Therese Gennari is an entrepreneur, model and environmental activist. Along with fellow model Valerie Emanuel, she co-founded the world’s first ethical modelling agency, Role Models Management (rebranded as Role Models Agency from September 2021).

How would you define ethical modelling?

Ethical modelling is using your platform as a model to do good. You understand the responsibilities that come with being a public figure that many young people
look up to and aspire to be, and choose to own up to that responsibility by inspiring healthy values and beliefs.

However, ethical modelling is not just about models, it’s about the industry at large. We must ensure to establish industry standards that are healthy and safe for all models and that takes an effort from all of us.

As an agency we also believe that we should provide a platform where we educate and inspire our models, which is why we launched our sister platform, Role Models Edu.

If we empower our models and teach them about the industry, like sustainable fashion, ethical production and safe working environments for garment workers worldwide, they can bring this knowledge to their followers and to set, helping fuel change from inside and outside at once!

What drove you and Val to start an ethical modelling agency? 

We were connected via a common friend who had heard both of us talk about a new kind of agency. Val and I were both models and felt like something had to change, that there was room for an agency that didn’t just represent models, but… role models!

We had one phone call and decided that it was worth giving it a try, so we started piecing together the business having never met in real life – she in LA, I going back and forth between Sweden and New York.

When we, a few months later, launched the business with a few models on our boards and booked our first client one week after our website went live, we understood we were on to something. It’s only grown organically from there.

The most incredible part with our agency is that as word got out, so many models started to reach out. It’s empowering and heart-warming to see how many models, athletes, musicians and other talent want to use their platforms for good.

At first our goal was to only work with “sustainable” and “ethical” brands, but we soon understood that we are actually part of fuelling the change and that part of shifting pop-culture and hence the societal norm, is by working closely with brands that want to do better.

So instead of being the agency only working with a certain kind of client, our focus has transitioned into representing Role Models and using our combined platform to lead and inspire positive change.

How do you choose your models?

This is always a tough question because there is no formula to how we choose models, really, we’re just looking for that…spark!

There’s a genuineness to a person who wants to make the world a better place that you can’t find in any textbook, you just know it when you see it.

But of course we’re looking for people with talent, may that be modelling, acting, singing or public speaking, and then we want to see what kind of cause they’re interested in and how they’re showing up as Role Models in their worlds.

If that part isn’t there, we can’t say yes, no matter how pretty someone might be!

How do you ensure Role Models Agency operates ethically?

We keep an open environment with our models so that they feel like they can always come to us and talk about whatever is on their minds.

We also offer full transparency in job opportunities and always allow models to accept or decline a job. Part of being an empowered model is to have agency over your schedule and to be able to align your work with your values.

That is why we will always respect if a model declines an opportunity if she doesn’t feel like it’s a good fit. 

We also host online and in-person events throughout the year with our models and partnering organisations, both to educate and to give back.

We’ve done beach clean-ups, co-launched awareness campaigns for plastic and mental health and hosted clothing-swaps parties and other fun things!

We’re also about to become a proud partner to Models Trust, an independent organisation working with all parts of the fashion industry to make modelling safer and more sustainable. They help us make sure our business operations are ethical and that our models feel safe financially and on set.

Alexandra Simpson

Alexandra Simpson is an ethical model and fashion student based in Auckland. She opens up about her experiences of ethical modelling, what her values are and how she supports her wellbeing.

What unethical practices have you experienced as a model?

As of now I haven’t experienced any, probably because I choose to be an ethical model, which means the people I [model] with also understand what that entails. 

I think if anything, it was more me seeing modelling as a job and not being afraid to ask for money and set my rates. Yes, modelling is a job, haha! You are using your time and energy.

How did you become an ethical model and how you would define ethical modelling?

I think I was always interested in modelling but also am aware of [the problems in] the industry. So I thought, though this is going to be very different/hard from what other people do I’m only going to model for brands that I think are making a difference and I have done my research on. 

Because I study fashion and am involved in those circles, it also helped so much having amazing friends and connections to make it easier to do it.

First and foremost it starts off with the brand. I’m like, ‘do I want to be on this brand’s website? Do I rep what they support? Also, am I being paid fairly and treated fairly for my work?’.

What causes do you believe in? What are your ethical values?

I feel like there are many, so, so many but I am vegan so that shapes a big part of my life. I am also an advocate for ethical/reused/upcycled fashion and women’s rights.

I believe the more connected you are to yourself, you will realise we are all interconnected and you will do better to treat the planet and people on it kindly.

I believe in anything that liberates humans/animals and gives us the freedom of choice in all its forms that we are deserving of.

Which ethical models do you look up to?

If anything, my interest in ethical modelling started with influencers, people who would promote things that are ethical/sustainable and who have a big platform.

I admire Kristen Leo, Venetia La Manna, Danni Duncan and Trash is for Tossers, just to name a few. And though I don’t know if you would consider her an ethical model, I love all the environmental work Doutzen Kroes does.

A New Zealand couple I recently came across is @thecurrentplace. They shoot ethical products, which I think is amazing – who’s to say things that are ethical and sustainable can’t look as beautiful and be styled like the pages in Vogue?

What do you do to look after yourself? Any self-care practices?

Rest, time alone just to float about, nature and friends.

How has your life changed since becoming an ethical model? 

I honestly didn’t think it could be a thing, but ever since I was little I have always been fascinated by it and then coming to where I stand in regards to ethics I was like, there is no way I’m going to be modelling for people I don’t believe in. 

I think ethical modelling has brought me countless opportunities to advocate for things I believe in and to connect with amazing people! It’s like living out all my childhood dreams but still maintaining my values.

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