By Ruth Hoy and Emily Leach (London)

Social responsibility in the fashion industry is a hot topic.  Fashion brands need to be wary of scrutiny for creating aspirational advertising that can be perceived as socially irresponsible. 

The use of size zero models, both on the catwalk and in advertising, is a trend that has been on-going for many years since the rise of Twiggy in the sixties (so-called for her slim frame).  However, with worrying statistics regarding eating disorders and a growing social backlash to this perceived ‘iconic’ body shape, we are seeing growing legislative intervention in this area. 


In April this year, the French National Assembly approved a bill to legislate against the use of excessively thin models in the fashion industry.

Models with a body mass index (BMI) below a level prescribed as healthy by health authorities will not be able to work in the modeling industry.  In addition, any photo-shopped images in fashion advertising will need to be accompanied by a notice detailing the fact that the image has been edited.  Modeling agencies that do not comply with this legislation could face fines of up to €75,000 and imprisonment of up to six months, while advertisers that do not adhere to the notice requirement could face a fine of €37,500 or up to 30 percent of the sums spent on the advertising.

This move by the French legislature follows the introduction of legislation in Israel.  Israel was one of the first countries to legislate in this area and uses the BMI measure set by the World Health Organization to monitor the industry.  Models are required to produce certificates to evidence their healthy BMI before they’re able to work.  The Israeli legislation also requires notice of photo editing to be given in advertising.

In 2006 the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers banned models with a BMI of under eighteen from walking the catwalk at Madrid Fashion Week.  A system of self-regulation has since resulted in Spain.  The Italian fashion industry also relies on voluntary codes of conduct.

The UK is yet to formally legislate on this issue however a series of adjudications by the advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), shows its concern.  The ASA enforces the UK Code of Nonbroadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code).  The complaints that have been upheld against fashion brands in this area tend to be held to breach rule 1.3, which states that ‘marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society’.  Although this rule does not expressly concern weight issues like the legislation mentioned above, it is clearly in place to combat social concerns and to ensure that advertisers take their social responsibility seriously.

In 2011 and 2014, complaints about the use of ‘unhealthily thin’ models brought under rule 1.3 were upheld against Drop Dead Clothing Ltd and another major fashion brand.  In both decisions, the ASA emphasized the social responsibility of the brands to consider the audience of their adverts and the need to not portray an unhealthily thin figure as something to aspire to.

In June this year, the ASA also upheld a complaint against Yves Saint Laurent SAS (YSL) regarding an advert that featured a woman wearing high wedge-heeled shoes that contrasted with her slim legs, and arching her back exposing her ribcage.  The advert was challenged on the basis that the model appeared too thin, and therefore the advert was irresponsible.  YSL expressed that they did not agree with the suggestion that the model was unhealthily thin, however they did not give a detailed response to the complaint.  In their decision, the ASA commented on the lighting effects, positioning of the model and contrast between the model’s slim legs and large shoes which made her appear very thin.