Sustainability has become a buzz word, that fact is undeniable. Searches for UK based sustainable fashion brands have risen by 250 percent within the last year according to google trend analytics.
Yes, sustainability is serious but are fast fashion brands taking it seriously? Well, it’s unclear. On the surface, it may seem so, with a multitude of fast fashion giants from H&M Group and Inditex to Arcadia implementing sustainable initiatives and even eco-friendly collections, it’s easy to look and applaud. But should we be accepting these efforts at face-value? Experts are sceptical, and so they should be.
Sustainable and social justice activist Francesca Willow who writes about these issues on her blog, ethicalunicorn.com says: “I don’t think the actual implementation is greenwashing but I would say that the marketing around it is.”
According to Mintel’s October 2018 Clothing Retailing report, 56 percent of 16-24-year olds and 57 percent of 25-34-year olds prefer to buy clothing from retailers that are trying to reduce their environmental impact. With the rising popularity of sustainability it’s not surprising that big brands are taking notice of the issue.
“If they really cared on a moral side, they would have been doing this because the public was talking about it and the reality is that isn’t what has happened,” says Willow.
So, while you would hope that promises of eco-friendly fashion are honest and transparent, many are untrusting of the willingness of fast fashion brands to flock to the cause. Are all the environmental efforts made by fast fashion brands simply just schemes to appeal to conscious consumers? Well, that’s where the claims of greenwashing come in.
The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1989 in order to highlight the false environmental claims of the hotel industry. Today the term is commonly used to refer to the fashion industry’s sustainable efforts. The Oxford Dictionary defines greenwashing as: “Disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” In other words, greenwashing is the use of sustainable initiatives for show instead of practice.
London based sustainable and ethical influencer Nadine Banks says: “I think recently greenwashing has been as bad as ever. With sustainability being the new hype word, it seems to be trending with brands.”
Pretty Little Thing, perhaps one of the worst offenders in the fast fashion market has recently rolled out a sustainable collection. Like its contemporaries such as Boohoo, Missguided and Nasty Gal, the brand is part of a new generation of uber-fast online retailers. Recycled by Pretty Little Thing comprises of basics made from recycled and reworked unwanted and worn-out materials. Yet, this collection accounts for a mere 148 items on the company’s website so it seems dishonest for Pretty Little Thing to shout sustainability.
While we’re all for accessible sustainable fashion, for a brand that is famed for knocking off a gold dress worn by Kim Kardashian on Instagram mere days after the celebrity posted the image on her social media account, Pretty Little Thing’s so-called sustainable collection seems misleading and Banks agrees.
“With the likes of ASOS, Pretty Little Thing and H&M releasing sustainable or conscious collections to make their brand seem sustainable is total greenwashing. It’s not sustainable having a small capsule collection amongst thousands of sale items. I believe if your brand isn’t 100 percent sustainable then your brand is not sustainable at all,” says Banks.
Brands have often come under fire due to the fact that fast fashion itself can never truly be sustainable. Why? Well, high-street retailers can promote organic cotton usage and recycling schemes as much as they want, not only do ‘conscious’ collections only amount for the smallest percent of its collections but they are still mass produced which leaves the majority of the products destined for the incinerator or landfill.
Ethical and sustainable fashion expert Eleanor Ward, who advocates about these issues on her Instagram @sustainablehustle is not convinced by the greenwashing tactics of fast fashion brands. “I think it’s actually it’s quite detrimental, it positions sustainability and consciousness as a trend.”
“It’s worrying how fast these collections have come about – sustainability in terms of large scale public conversations have only really come about in the past year so with H&M, it’s crazy that it’s suddenly turned around this conscious collection as they appear to be getting more and more pressure,” she continues.
Over the years, H&M has been targeted as guilty of greenwashing. A quick scan of the comments under Instagram posts on H&M’s account on the social media platform reveals the general consensus that consumers aren’t buying it.
Under a recent post which advertised H&M’s conscious collection, one Instagram user named @daniewho wrote: “H&M is one of the worst and unethical companies in the world. Literally profiting off the fact people are choosing to shop more sustainably and using false marketing to trick people. Do better.”
But what does Ward make of conscious collections? “It’s just really harmful to the consumer in educating them on what sustainability is because a lot of people would think that they are sustainable and thus buy into H&M and whoever-else’s collections.”
Fast fashion brands are getting consumers involved in sustainability by offering in-store recycling initiatives that reward costumers for bringing a bag of unwanted clothing to be recycled. H&M for example offers its customers a £5 voucher that can be redeemed in-store.
Brands don’t have to do this – so why are they? Is it just a ploy to churn a profit while reaping the awards from some good press? “The issue here is that they are asking people to bring in clothes to then get a £5 voucher to then spend in the store and also it’s completely ironic that H&M is able to do that it shows how little value its clothes and profit margins are if they are able to offer that to every consumer,” explains Ward.
“It’s questionable as to where these second-hand clothes go to, a lot of second-hand that’s even given to charity shops with the best intentions let alone given to H&M go to landfill so again completely fuelling the problem.”
Yet, H&M does publicise where these clothes potentially end up. According to H&M’s website, clothing that is handed in to be recycled at its stores has one of three futures. Depending on its condition, the clothing is either sold as second-hand goods, reworked into new products or recycled into textile fibres that make new materials and products.
Sustainability activist Francesca Willow however, is not convinced: “H&M has a bit of a history, when they did the recycling initiatives that just happened to launch when it was Fashion Revolution Week but the conscious collections only makes up something like one percent of the brand while they still continue with all of these other practices.”
In the past people have criticised brands on account of their lack of published facts and figures on sustainability. Today this is changing as brands are slowly but surely wising up. A quick google search reveals that many brands have dedicated sections to sustainability on their websites.
In fact, H&M has recently published a sustainability report which highlights the brand’s targets. The report claims that it is working towards paying all of its garment workers a fair living wage yet, when you look at the prices of items on H&M – £19.99 for a pair of jeans – it doesn’t seem likely that a garment worker was paid fairly for this work.
“Garment workers in particular are completely lost from these conversations,” says Ward. “It’s a really amazing skill to be able to make clothing and yet these people are often the most silenced, under-paid and mistreated in the industry.”
Ward believes that placing the treatment of skilled garment workers at the forefront of the conversation is one way to change consumption. “I honestly feel that people would shop a lot more consciously if they could almost personify the item that they’re buying,” continues Ward.
According to Mintel’s Young Millennial’s Drive Interest in Sustainable Fashion report, while young people are leading the change, only 12 percent of female shoppers deem the ethical treatment of garment workers as a priority. Perhaps this is why fast fashion brands publicise their sustainable efforts yet shun the ethical side of fashion. Yet H&M is changing this with its fair living wage strategy.
The company’s annual sustainability report states that in 2018, 655 factories which accounts for 84 percent of H&M Group’s product volume are implementing a wage management system or implementing democratically elected worker representation which covers nearly a million garment workers. The strategy also ensures that labour costs are excluded from price negotiations on products.
So, what’s all this bad press about? Well, H&M promotes its conscious collection avidly yet these facts and figures which would squash most of the greenwashing claims are not widely circulated by the retailer. In fact you have to actively look for them. Plus, H&M have made similar promises in the past that were not unfulfilled.
“They did say in 2013 that they we’re going to do it by 2018 and then obviously with the wages it didn’t happen and they tried to scrub all evidence from it from the website but they can’t escape it because it’s in The True Cost,” reveals Willow.
To the average consumer who may not be aware of these resources, it would seem on the surface that it’s all saying and no doing. Yet, this all comes down to transparency and H&M is aware and is actively trying to be more transparent. Finally, a move that sustainable advocate Ward hopes to see within the industry.
“I think it would be more productive for brands to be talking in the long term as to what they’re doing because it can’t happen overnight, these multi-billion pound businesses can’t suddenly overturn what they’re doing and be sustainable as of tomorrow it’s a long term goal,” says Ward.
This year H&M plans to add more information to its products on its online store. This information will aid in creating greater awareness on how customers can find out which factory items were produced, the material composition and solutions for re-using and recycling products.
Still, is all of this enough to squash the greenwashing claims? Ward is wary. Fast fashion can never be sustainable, the clue is in the name. “I think the fast needs to be taken away from this conversation, I think fashion can be sustainable but nothing that is fast can ever be sustainable we work to the craziest schedules and time frames, you look at Missguided a week later as soon as Kim Kardashian worn it it’s on there and working at such a fast pace,” says Ward.
What should consumers do in light of greenwashing claims? Well according to Ward adopting a slower approach to our clothing consumption is crucial. It’s time to chill out and curb our consumption. “The first thing you can do is slow down and really redevelop your relationship with clothing, don’t worry about going out and spending £100 on a pair of Veja trainers it’s not about that and sustainability needs to be accessible for it to work,” explains Ward.
“I think advocating is one of the best things you can do, write to Zara, write to H&M and say ‘Hey love your stuff but I just really want to know more about what you’re doing, what your transparency is in terms of workers’ rights and the impacts of your clothing production’ and the more noise that is made the more that that will trigger these brands to jump on board and I definitely recommend Fashion Revolution Week for that.”
Fashion Revolution recently published its annual Fashion Transparency Index which examines the information that fashion brands disclose about their environmental policies, impacts and human rights.
Interestingly, H&M came out favourably, with a high score of 61 percent. Only five percent of the 200 brands reviewed in the index scored higher than 60 percent, which implies that H&M is doing something right. Still, there are always improvement to be made, particularly with Zara and Topshop who received scores of 46 percent and 28 percent respectively.
According to Willow, fast fashion brands would have to change their entire business model before she buys into their sustainable and ethical advances. “They can’t keep the status quo and be sustainable, it’s physically not possible because it’s still driving this hyper-consumption.”
Regardless of the efforts made by fast fashion brands, the jury is still out whether they are combating their sustainability issues or just plain greenwashing. The only way to be clear on greenwashing is to research and demand greater transparency from brands. Per Ward’s recommendation, Fashion Revolution actively encourages this through its ‘Who Made My Clothes’ campaign, take part now.