Can Fast Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?

Sustainable fashion is starting to be taken seriously. About time, with 150 billion garments ending up in landfill each year. That’s probably because we don't wear 50% of our wardrobes.

It takes up to 1,000 years to decompose a single pair of shoes, and for as long as Americans alone throw away 300 million pairs a year, we’re not doing our grandkids (and their grandkids) any favours.

We’re becoming increasingly tuned in to the destruction that the fashion industry causes, particularly as a result of a new uber-fast consumer culture that’s been cultivated by the rise of online shopping. So, in heroic attempt to combat the problem, a few of the worst culprits have leapt into action. Rejoice! Some of the planet’s biggest polluters, who have made billions in the process of its pollution, are trying to save it!

Environmentalism is hitting the high street in the form of collections that are, according to their manifestos, more sustainable than regular fast-fashion lines. H&M Conscious, ASOS Made in Kenya & Zara Join Life are the ‘eco-friendly’ children of their fast-fashion parents. It’s like if Ivanka Trump started protesting gun laws.

I’ll start, as I mean to go on, with utter honesty - this article was born from my own deep frustration that the astronomical force of advertising is able to override the truth. So, in an exercise that has as much acted as my own therapy as it has a research mission, I’ve investigated - one by one - into the true sustainable value of the high street’s most popular eco-friendly ranges. I’ve based my opinion on the facts. I’ve got no doubt that by the end of my article (/rant), you’ll agree too (if you don't already).

H&M Conscious collection

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In its’ 2016 Annual Sustainability Report, H&M committed to some ambitious targets. It promised that by 2020, all of its’ cotton will be sustainably sourced, by 2030 all materials used will be recycled or sustainable, and that 2040 will see the brand become entirely ‘climate positive’. Right then.

In 2011, H&M launched its ‘Conscious’ line - a collection consisting mostly of off-white/oatmeal-beige pieces constructed from thin but eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton, hemp and linen. Not so sexy for us as for the environment, but half-way there. ‘Conscious’ implies both a brand and a buyer that are tuned in to the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Because of this, the oxymoronic ‘H&M’ and ‘conscious’ immediately sounds like an impossible concept.

The Conscious Collection is identifiable in store by its green paper tag. As part of H&M’s sustainability scheme, it is accompanied by a voucher programme through which customers receive a discount voucher in exchange for donating old clothes. The vouchers themselves are, appropriately, green. AKA definition greenwashing. H&M are spending a lot of time and money advertising their super-sustainable eco-friendliness, but not actually doing much to minimise their immense environmental impact. They’re all talk. And, like their clothes, H&M’s talk is pretty cheap.

Although, at least they’re talking, and the sustainable fashion movement does have something to thank H&M for. The label is probably spending more time promoting sustainability, and raising awareness of its importance, than any other high street brand. In October last year, H&M made a press release stating that “living on a planet with limited natural resources means that the fashion industry will not be able to operate in the same way in the future as it does today.” How true. It continued, “we believe that a business model fuelled by sustainable materials that can be reused again and again is the only way to keep fashion sustainable.” Excellent. How accurate. How fucking ironic. I laughed to myself and even tweeted my amusement. It’s great that a brand as big as H&M is talking about sustainability. Except the publicity that they’re giving to the global benefits of sustainable clothing is, ironically, helping much more than their attempt at manufacturing said clothing themselves.

Despite goals targeting the environmentally friendly future of H&M, there is little to be said for the human-friendly aspect. To keep the range accessible to their cash-strapped shopper, the Conscious line is sold at the same price point as everything else in the store - a clear indicator that it is made in the same factory. The brand manufactures 25% of all its clothing in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is the lowest in the world. This means that 850,000 of H&M’s textile workers are not paid a living wage. No matter how sustainable the fabric, this brand is anti-human.

If H&M was serious about sustainability, then it wouldn’t produce yet more inhumanely manufactured and low quality clothing under an illusory feel-good name. Instead, it would focus on changing its inherently unsustainable business model. Shopping the H&M Conscious collection is kind of like eating horse-meat that’s labelled beef.

ASOS Made In Kenya

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ASOS has multiple collections that it labels sustainable. So many, in fact, that navigating them is trickier than finding the perfect berry lip colour come October. It’s not easy to tell what each line is, let alone why there are so many. Labels include ASOS Recycled, ASOS Green, The Eco Edit, ASOS Design and, most successfully, ASOS Made in Kenya. The Eco Edit is a platform for sustainable brands, while Made In Kenya (the flagship brand of The Eco Edit) is ASOS’s own sustainable label. The brand said that The Eco Edit, (originally launched in 2010 as the Green Room), is “one of the ways ASOS promotes products that are made by manufacturers and brands who use sustainable business practices”. Not that ASOS itself uses a sustainable business practice.

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In March 2018, Buzzfeed’s investigation into British working conditions intensely confronted ASOS. The report exposed that employees had not been allowed to take toilet breaks, and that they faced regular body searches to ensure that they hadn’t stolen anything. Buzzfeed evidenced that strict deadlines and time targets put staff under immense stress, with some reporting panic attacks when unable to complete tasks to their deadline. ASOS employees are kept on contracts that allow the company to send them home without pay or cancel shifts at the last minute. Although damaging the brand’s reputation amongst those interested enough to research its manufacturing process (i.e. not many of us), the scandal didn’t dent ASOS’s dominance in online fashion retail.

Despite a poor working environment in the UK, measures are being taken to improve that of the brand’s supply chain abroad. ASOS Made in Kenya is made by SOKO Kenya, which is an ethical clothing manufacturer that provides stable employment in some of Kenya’s poorest communities. Its’ 50 employees (give or take) receive daily hot meals and healthcare cover, as well as access to a creche, kitchen, and washing facilities. SOKO provides work to Kenya’s female population that would otherwise be forced to prostitution to secure an income. Securing SOKO’s stability through their partnership, ASOS enables working mothers to gain financial security through an income of their own.

ASOS are doing something, be it small-scale, to target worker’s rights. However, environmentally, they’re one of the biggest polluters of all mega fashion retailers. Speaking on their lack of ethical policy, ASOS womenswear designer Vanessa Spence said that the brand is “never going to create a collection that's all about sustainability…we’d rather get it within the thousands and thousands of options in our offering.” Read: nothing totally sustainable, some things a little bit sustainable. This means that ASOS is entirely inaccessible to the sustainable shopper - like offering a vegan a part-ish-not-really vegan dinner.

ASOS are hiding behind an expensive display of glossy teens. Employee working conditions are left unexposed by our ill-informed society, and the brand’s sources so unclear that it is impossible for the average customer to follow.

Zara Join Life

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Zara is owned by Inditex - the largest fashion retailer in the world. With over 7,000 stores and 170,000 employees worldwide, this brand has a big responsibility when it comes to fashion’s footprint.

In a timely response to consumer’s growing desire to shop sustainably, 2015 saw Zara launch it’s ‘Join Life’ scheme. This small collection of clothing is identifiable as environmentally friendly not only by its label, but also by its (unflattering) beige-white-brown colour palette - of which (unfortunately) appears to be a trend amongst sustainable fashion lines.

Items carrying the tag must reach a strict criteria. They are made with organic cotton, (which uses 90% less water to produce than regular cotton), recycled wool or tencel (which is a wood fibre sourced from sustainably managed forests). ‘Join Life’ garments are manufactured by Inditex's ‘Green to Wear’ technology, and supply factories must earn a grade A or B according to the retailer’s environmental standards.

Unlike its competitors, Inditex’s sustainability focus goes beyond responsible material sourcing and adequate working conditions. Every year, the retailer introduces new measures to improve the eco-efficiency of its stores, decreasing electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing environmental impact in both the country of production and that of retail, this sustainability plan is pretty foolproof.

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Inditex is also making significant efforts to reduce waste, ambitiously intending that they will send nothing to landfill by 2020. Zara’s ‘Closing The Loop’ program offers an in-store drop off for used garments to be sent for recycling. According to Inditex president Pablo Isla, collecting garments to be recycled will allow Zara to “avoid the felling of some 21,840 trees and reduce our CO2 emissions by 1,680 tonnes a year.” These figures were probably plucked from the clouds, but they do at least show that emissions are on Zara’s agenda. Donating clothes provides a boost of the high-street shopper’s moral conscience, making it a key piece to the puzzle when it comes to raising awareness of sustainable fashion. Although, with the retailer selling over 450 million items per year through a network of over 7 thousand stores worldwide, customers have plenty to donate.

Despite its contributions to the mass success of the fast fashion industry, the measures that this mega-retailer has taken to increase its eco-efficiency has earned it a stellar score in the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report (which analyses payment of a living wage, transparency and worker empowerment initiatives). Zara gained an A+ in policies, auditing and supplier relations, an A for knowing their suppliers, and a B for worker empowerment. These marks don’t conjure up the disturbing images of sweatshops and child labour that have become synonymous with the manufacturing of fast fashion.

Don’t be mistaken; Inditex brands release, on average, 52 collections a year. The retailer clocked in sales of €25.34 billion in 2017, once again securing its firm status as one of the leaders of the fast fashion industry. However, Inditex is taking measures to reduce its environmental footprint at every corner. Of all its high street competitors, Inditex is the most worthy of applause when it comes to effort.

Frankly, none of these brands could ever be regarded as ‘sustainable’. Or ‘eco-friendly’. Or ‘green’.

The success of all of these businesses is dependant on an inherently unsustainable system of high speed fashion. These are business models that rely on their own fast moving consumer cycle. Zara makes 52 collections a year, so we buy 52 collections a year. The planet, however, could do without.

‘Sustainable’ is at high risk of becoming an advertisement buzz-word. The term isn’t genuine certification that a garment’s production chain hasn't brought harm to the planet & the people in it. Excuse my cynicism, but it’s apparent that this is a mission to boost sales by removing the guilt-factor of shopping. The sad thing is that it’s working. 73% of millennials are willing to pay more for something if, as far as they know, it’s sustainable. Fast-fashion labels have leapt onto the train before it runs them over. This isn’t the universally accessible super-sustainable shopping that the adverts lead us to believe. Unfortunately, in 2019, we’re a long way off that.

It is a simple fact that for as long as fast fashion remains, clothing is an unsustainable industry. That’s not to say the industry itself is inherently unsustainable, but while the fast-fashion business model remains the same, any attempt at a more sustainable future is awash.