You’d be forgiven for thinking that the high street is leading the fashion revolution. Almost any sustainable shopping feature you’d care to read will feature H&M, hailed for their yearly sustainability reports and commitment to upping their use of recycled and sustainably sourced materials. Alongside them will likely be Mango, whose Committed Collection is in shops now, and ASOS (not on the high street but surely the high street of online shopping?), on the list for their Made in Kenya range.
Each of these fashion giants have carefully crafted narratives which fit snugly within the sustainable style remit. They flaunt their green credentials, assuaging consumer guilt with promises of organic fabrics, fair wages and renewable sources. Taken at face value, this sounds wonderful. We can continue to shop at our favourite shops and save the planet. It’s a win-win.
Except, it’s not quite that simple, so let’s dig a little deeper. To do so, we first need to establish the differences between ethical and sustainable fashion, because ethical fashion isn’t always sustainable. Imagine, for example, that a brand produced a range of t-shirts. The t-shirts are made in a safe factory which is subject to regular inspections. The people making the t-shirts are entitled to benefits such as paid holiday and maternity leave and they’re paid a fair, living wage. To many, this would be considered an ethical set up.
But if those t-shirts are made from cotton, it would take around 3000 litres of water to make each one. And if those t-shirts were bright pink, the toxic dye might seep into the local water supply, denying people a clean water supply. And if those t-shirts were best sellers, they might be produced in the hundreds of thousands. And if those t-shirts went out of style, they might end up in landfill.
The link between ethical and sustainable fashion cannot be assumed but the two are often conflated and this works to the high street’s benefit. Looking at H&M as an example, the brand has committed to implementing wage management systems at supplier factories, to switch to 100% renewable energy, to use 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and to become climate positive throughout its entire value chain by 2040. Grand claims indeed.
The importance of commercial and financial commitment to meeting such goals cannot be overlooked. Investment and research lead to breakthroughs and if those breakthroughs can transform the supply chain with pioneering recycling methods and new, sustainable fabrics then all the better. However, their claims often lack context, so here’s some of that for you:
Looking first at their intentions to scale up fair living wages, it’s vital to note that the brand doesn’t actually own any factories, instead utilising independent suppliers in developing countries. Just this year, violent protests broke out at a supplier factory in Myanmar over benefits and working conditions. ‘Scaling up’ industrial relations does not guarantee the ethical treatment of workers throughout the supply chain.
Moving on to sustainability, what exactly do H&M’s pledges mean in the face of the 550 million garments they reportedly produce a year? For every promise and impressive statement, they are still pumping the world full of clothes that are intended to be disposable; discarded in favour of the next new trend.
I’m using H&M as an example because they’re often lauded as being at the helm of the sustainable fashion movement but, of course, they’re not the sole culprit. Built upon modern consumer culture, the fast fashion model is, at its very core, utterly unsustainable.
Global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000. On top of this, the average person buys 60% more clothing yet keeps them for about half as long as they did 15 years ago*. Fast fashion is feeding our insatiable, untenable desire for more clothes than we’ve ever owned before.
It’s also important to remember that alongside every eco, conscious, committed and green collection on the high street are rails upon rails of clothes that are decidedly the opposite. Not made from organic cotton; not made from recycled fabrics; not crafted with the environment in mind.
A biannual capsule collection and intermittent use of recycled fabrics simply isn’t enough to offset the inherent unsustainability of producing hundreds of millions of garments a year. So, yes, there are a handful of positives take from to those eco collections but they are absolutely, resolutely not the answer and they do not clear fast fashion of its culpability in the mistreatment and exploitation of human beings and the irresponsible use of the earth’s finite resources.
*Source: Fashion Revolution in partnership with Greenpeace