Environmental concerns are at the forefront of our public consciousness and the fashion industry is no exception. Consumers have become increasingly conscious of what goes into the manufacturing of their products, from water consumption to chemical pollution to deforestation – and they have made sure that retailers take note of such issues.
On the back of scandals such as the revelation that lingerie giant Victoria Secret was cutting down endangered forests to create the 400 million catalogues they sent out annually, retailers became aware of a pressing need to alter practices in order to retain customers.
Environmentally conscious fashion, however, has moved on from the somewhat questionable couture styles that might be associated with it. Gone are the days in which eco-friendly fashion meant a hemp sack with armholes. Instead, we have seen a rise in mainstream brands’ development of environmentally conscious lines, such as H&M’s 2013 ‘Conscious Collection.’ The retailer is now committed to “making fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable,” according to their CEO Karl-Johan Persson. A crucial part of their strategy involves avoiding the use of materials created using pulp from trees cut down in some of the oldest and most endangered forests in the world.
According to Canopy, a non-profit organisation aimed at reducing the environmental cost of clothing, 70 million trees are cut down to make fabric for the fashion industry every year; this figure is set to double over the next 20 years. Forest hotspots include the rainforests of Chile, Indonesia and the Amazon. H&M, along with other apparel companies such as Zara and Levi’s, have teamed up with Canopy to remove such forests from their dissolvable pulp supply chain for viscose and rayon fabrics.
It’s hard not to view such plans with a little skepticism: H&M has not been without its own share of ethical scandals, with one New York store reportedly cutting up and discarding its own unsold clothing. Is this just the fashion industry responding to current mainstream concerns in an attempt to widen its target customer base? Whilst this is undoubtedly a contributing factor, the strategies are having an effect on environmental issues. According to their 2013 annual report, H&M collected 3,047 tonnes of clothing worldwide from customers in their stores, and 2014 saw the launch of their first garments made from the recycled fibres of these collected clothes. Considering 90 million items are thrown out each year in the UK, this is a promising step.
However, the impetus for real change needs to come from the consumers. Fast fashion, in which clothing is mass-produced while distributors battle to provide the cheapest price, is never going to be environmentally sustainable. As shoppers, the easiest way to help is to make small changes, like supporting smaller, local companies who are better able to track their sources; going down to Cowley to find a bargain in one of the many charity shops; or swapping with your hipster friends to try out something new.