By Chere Di Boscio
The #FashionRevolution event this year was bigger than ever, with record numbers of Tweeters asking ‘Who Made My Clothes?” to manufacturers. At the same time, fashionistas around the world flocked to see The True Cost film created by director Andrew Morgan, which highlighted the human and ecological cost of fast fashion.
As a result of growing awareness about the impact fashion has on people and the planet, fast fashion companies like Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) are focusing on their ethical profiles to drive long-term sales growth. The fashion industry has come under increasing pressure to cut water use and pesticides in cotton farming, reduce pollution from textile factories and improve factory conditions, particularly after the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh two years ago.
Despite many promises to improve their sustainability, opinion is split on whether such companies are actually doing enough. It’s a hot debate. Take the case of H&M, for example: while the worker’s rights group the Clean Clothes Campaign has accused H&M of using their Conscious Collection as a marketing ploy to make the company look greener, Corporate Knights magazine declared it to be among the world’s most sustainable companies. But that’s not all–H&M has been given international ethics awards, and has been named as one of the best companies to work for.
Worker’s rights groups argue that while this may be true for the employees working in developed countries, what of the company’s 850,000 textile workers not being paid a fair and living wage in nations like Bangladesh, where about a quarter of H&M’s clothing is manufactured?
The Paradox of Development and Sustainability
Bangladeshi production is doubtlessly in place to keep the cost of H&M’s clothing so low, which is necessary to stay competitive in a market where there’s a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of pricing. CEO Karl-Johan Persson admits that H&M needs to keep growing to keep shareholders happy, but says they also have a responsibility to “respect the planetary boundaries.”
A noble sentiment indeed, but surely Persson is kept awake at night wondering how a business can continue to produce 600 million garments per year and not badly damage the planet in the process, even if those garments are made from organic cotton. Like all fast-fashion companies, the success of H&M is dependent on a strategy of built-in obsolescence, which is to say that the clothing isn’t meant to last for ages, both in terms of style and quality. This strategy is, of course, inherently unsustainable.
The H&M Conscious Collection, to be fair, is comprised of a few pieces that could be wardrobe staples, including maxi dresses and tuxedo jackets. The ‘normal’ H&M collections could also stay in your closet for ages–think T shirts and jeans that stay wearable for years, for example. If they’re tossed out while they still look good, is this H&M’s fault…or our own?
It’s Up To Us
Built-in obsolescence in clothing works for two reasons. One, consumers believe the garment is ‘out of style’ quickly so throw it away. Two, the garment costs very little, so the consumer feels little guilt about binning it. Arguably, fast fashion companies are only fulfilling demand, so if we stopped buying and binning so much fashion, producers would be forced to change tactics.
We now know about the dangers of sugar in our diet, and if a friend came back from the supermarket with a bag full of chocolate, sugary cereals and sodas, no doubt we’d raise an eyebrow and feel a bit disgusted. The same should hold true for friends coming back with bagfuls of ‘disposable’ fashion from Primark, H&M, Forever 21 and their ilk. We need to turn the notion of ‘fast fashion’ into a social stigma.
It’s not going to be easy, given the popularity of the mindless consumerism of the Kardashians and the mall culture of developed countries, but Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, is sure reason will prevail, and states that H&M customers are demanding more information about the origin of the clothes they buy. “We see it in the amount of queries we get by mail, in stores and in customer surveys. People are aware and want more information on social as well as environmental issues,” she told Reuters.
Customers are also demanding centres to recycle their clothing–something Kering (formerly the Gucci Group) has paid close attention to. Citing environmental reasons and consumer pressure as well as the risks of output disruptions and water shortages in the production process, Kering has paired up with H&M to develop new technologies with Worn Again, a company that makes yarn from recycled textiles. Both companies intend to use these fibres in their creations within the next year or so.
You see? Consumer demands can make a difference to corporate policies. But the best statement we could possibly make is to decrease demand for fast fashion. No one is forcing us to buy this stuff, no matter how sustainable it may be. We need to ask ourselves how much clothing we actually need–and why we want more. Is it insecurity? Is it lack of personal style and creativity? Is it pure greed? Ultimately, if landfill is packed with discarded clothing that will take centuries to biodegrade, frankly we have only ourselves to blame.