Fast fashion brands are notoriously known for their huge environmental impact, which includes enormous waste, considerable use and pollution of natural resources as well as energy. But sustainability isn’t just about the materials used to produce garments. Another factor to consider is fair treatment of their labour forces. To combat their carbon footprint, many brands including Zara, H&M, Mango and Primark have launched their own sustainable labels, promising to fulfil impressive goals by 2025 or 2050. But are they really as sustainable as they seem? We take a deep dive into these brands’ eco-conscious endeavours to find out.
Clean and Green
One of the biggest environmental problems fast fashion brands face, is the excessive use of unsustainable materials, including commercial cotton (which takes excessive amounts of water to produce), polyester and other petroleum-derived materials that depend on fossil fuels for their production. Many production processes including dyeing allow toxins into water resources, thus polluting them.
So how are brands solving the problem? Inditex-owned Zara has made a commitment to use 100 per cent more sustainable cotton, according to which, all their cotton will have a more sustainable origin: Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Organic Cotton, Organic Cotton From The Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) Or Recycled Cotton.
Fast fashion giant H&M claims that all of their cotton is either organic, recycled, or, like Zara, sourced from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Contrary to the claim, not all cotton products on their website are labelled to be organic, recycled or sourced from the BCI.
For more understanding, the BCI is a certification standard that claims it wants to “make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in, and better for the sector’s future.” Sustainability strategist and blogger Amy Nguyen stated in her Input.com article, however, that farmers producing the cotton for BCI were found to have been forced under “awful labour conditions”, disproving claims by fast fashion brands about their cotton being completely conscious.
H&M also claims on its website under the sustainability page that each of their product pages includes what the product is made of, including supplier and partner information, thus ensuring complete transparency. Their shopping pages, however, speak another story. Products from their new collection in collaboration with ethical fashion label, Lemlem, fail to mention names of manufacturers that made the products. They do, however, mention countries of origin, which is not enough to gauge whether or not their products were made in ethical environments. H&M also faced backlash over the recent forced labour controversy regarding its cotton being sourced from the Xinjang region in China.
Fast fashion competitor Zara presents a similar case. While the brand’s product pages provide ample information about the sustainable materials used by them, much like H&M, they fall short in providing supply chain transparency. All pages about suppliers or manufacturers are redirected to a page that belongs to its parent company Inditex. Inditex, on the other hand, mentions no more than countries of origin and the number of suppliers and factories it partners with in each country.
So, is it impossible to track where each product you want to buy comes from? Sustainable fashion brand Everlane proves it is. With its radical approach to supply chain transparency, it provides information on each product’s manufacturer along with a peek into the factory itself. Allbirds, another conscious brand informs customers of each product's carbon footprint, along with its own as a whole.
Image source: theindustry.fashion
Closer to home, brands like The Jodi Life and Rengé showcase transparency by letting customers know through their website about not only crafts used to make their products but also information on artisans and their tailor force. Rengé even does a weekly workshop tour on its social media for their audience and customers to experience.
Image source: Instagram/renge_india
Conscious fashion influencer Elizabeth Joy called out UK-based Primark in a recent Instagram post for lacking transparency about living wages of labour employed by its suppliers as well as for cancelling orders worth £250 million in 2020, early in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fast fashion brand, which has also launched its sustainable label Primark Cares, recently faced backlash when one of its suppliers in Myanmar was accused of locking garment workers in factories and later dismissing them for participating in anti-coup protests.
The Waste Problem
While the demand for transparency may be able to coax brands to reveal more, the real problem lies with the fundamental formula of fast fashion, a rather profit-making formula that pushes brands to produce more and sell more at cheaper rates. This has led to sizable amounts of waste owing to huge inventories, unsold products and clothes that have a shorter life span which end up in landfills as a result of being thrown out.
According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling. As per a report by McKinsey and Company and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, while people bought 60 per cent more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long. As reported by the Business of Fashion in a rather recent case study, H&M has inventory levels worth a whopping $4 billion as reported in May 2020. The figure has stayed untouched since 2018.
That said, there aren’t many substantial endeavours from most fast fashion brands when it comes to inventory or excess waste management, except for recent take-back programmes that encourage re-purchases from the customers. The fact remains that companies with massive production levels have a more pressing waste management problem to solve. While using sustainable materials is a move in the right direction, it may just prove to be a drop in the ocean when it comes to making a substantial difference.