H&M as a prime example of greenwashing complaints, labour rights and questions of sustainability as an all or nothing label. Sustainability’s place in the fashion industry’s future is undisputed, but its desirability for consumers has led to overmarketing for a very small aspect of many fast fashion’s brands. H&M has been under the microscope since it started pushing their “sustainable” Conscious Collection. Critics have been labelling these practices as nothing more than greenwashing, as these efforts make up such a tiny proportion of their $24 billion profit in 2019, without even considering worker rights.
However, their endeavours towards capsule collections more ethically made have been mirrored in many other fast fashion brands: Zara, Mango and Asos have all taken steps to including sustainable items in their roster. These collections allow companies to trial run these sustainable fabrics and technologies before scaling up production, to work out kinks and be sure that consumers are willing to invest in these principles. Implementing sustainable and ethical manufacturing is costly and not widely available and brands are unwilling to jump in the deep end when their business is based in fast and cheap fashion.
Eco-friendly collections cannot overhaul an industry, but industry experts consider them useful as early steps in building sustainable practices. However, these collections are only as good as the progress they encourage. Without plans to scale up or further develop the materials, processes and thus, the collections, eco-friendly collections are nothing more than elaborate marketing strategies.
Levi’s are an example of scaling up done right. In 2011, they introduced their Water>Less™ technology, which reduces water use in denim manufacturing by up to 95 per cent on a type of fabric which has a smaller carbon footprint than the usual cotton. They built it up over multiple seasons until it matched their standards before introducing it to other product.
“The last thing that the cause of sustainability in fashion needs is a big failure to cause everyone in the C-suite or the top-floor offices to question whether we should be doing it at all,” says Paul Dillinger, VP of global product innovation at Levi’s. This attitude was equally adopted by Reebok, who used customer feedback on their cotton and corn-based fibres before designing the next version of the shoe.
Small changes to manufacturing can ripple out and find themselves incorporated into the main lines of products, like the recycled material used in pocket lining North Face jackets. Starting small and reacting based on feedback allows sustainable manufacturing to enter the mainstream without major risk to the stakeholders.
H&M’s changes will influence the broader market in the long-term, as others cotton on to the popularity of ecologically conscious capsules. But Maxine Bédat, of the non-profit New Standard Institute, says it’s not enough. Her main criticisms stem from the language used in marketing. “Sustainable” and “ethical” are not regulated terms and often give a black-and-white impression of a company’s integrity. Specific details regarding H&M’s fabrics and sourcing can be hard to come by; H&M “mainly” used Tencel, a responsibly sourced brand of lyocell, but the unnamed amount of traditional lyocell is a contributor to deforestation.
Bédat is concerned with the overmarketing of sustainability. She says, “the marketing of what their doing is far outpacing what they’re doing.”Consumers want accurate and nuanced information on what they’re buying, which would honestly disclose their percentages, factories and areas to improve on. This will help consumers to know if they are just in it to profit on a fast-growing trend or are truly contributing to solving climate change.
Rebecca Burgess, founder and director of Fibershed, criticises the way in which major brands offset their costs to keep their sustainable collections low priced. Contaminated water supplies or other ecological impacts can be externalised. If these brands truly tackle these issues and pay for the technologies, prices will have to be raised. “Brands are determining if the customer can tolerate that”, says Burgess on capsule collections. “[A brand’s] business model is based on sales.”
Raising prices works for brands founded on an ethical story or a consumer-base which is willing to pay a premium for the product. However, fast-fashion brands are based on cheap, regularly changing collections which are designed to be quickly discarded. The most telling indication that a brand is truly working towards a sustainable future is charting their progress in the domain: are the collections growing and improving each year? We should be moving away from considering brands as simply “sustainable” or not, and therefore evil, and focusing on the nuances of the market and considering the difficulties of introducing ethical clothing.