Fast fashion. An industry now intrinsic to the high street, earning the name through its fast process from design to mass production as much as its brief shelf-life. In a consumer culture where trends last as long as a Twitter hash-tag, how can retailers keep up the pace without social and environmental consequences? Short answer: they can’t. The challenge has moved beyond slowing down the race to getting off the tracks altogether.
Controversy surrounding the fast fashion industry is unavoidable. Widespread media coverage has ensured issues from workers’ rights and animal welfare to carbon footprint and sourcing of materials regularly disgrace our screens. The recent collapse of a shoe factory in Wenling, China, killed between 6 and 14 people. It adds to the long list of scandals concerning the shameful working conditions in environments that fuel our taste for cheap and quick fashion – Wenling is estimated to produce one fifth of the world’s shoes. Frankly, we can’t ignore the human tragedy that goes hand in hand with fast fashion, but how do we move from condemning these atrocities to changing our pattern of consumption? The answer comes down to shifting our perspective on how we value clothing, as well as retailers providing appealing alternatives.
High street brands are attempting to embrace this challenge, while tapping into the expanding market for clothes with an ethical conscience, by creating specific lines and developing their manufacturing strategy. H&M’s 2014 Conscious Actions sustainability report records their progress in making the company sustainable. Released alongside their Conscious Exclusive Line, it is designed to demonstrate H&M’s commitment to ensuring, in the words of CEO Karl-Johan Persson, “that sustainability is completely integrated into the business and part of the company’s DNA”. This includes creating a closed loop for garments, reducing energy consumption and waste, and using fabrics from more recycled, animal-welfare certified or organic sources. Does this mean sustainable fashion on the fast-track is on the horizon after all? From a distance, the figures are impressive: H&M have donated over 4 million garments and, according to Textile Exchange’s 2013 Organic Cotton Market Report, they are the world’s top user of organic cotton. However, look closer and the figures can be accounted for by the sheer size of the company. Their 4 million donated garments seem less remarkable considering H&M are estimated to sell over 550 million garments a year, and while they may be the biggest user of organic cotton, it still only accounts for 13.7 percent of their cotton usage. Can H&M really call themselves conscious if 86% of their materials are classed as unsustainable?
It seems as though sustainability is incompatible with the demands of fast fashion
In the face of all the misleading messages, as H&M’s case goes to show, where does this leave the consumer in search of genuinely ethical fashion? Rankings can help to cut through the marketing hype and root out the best the high street has to offer. Ethical Consumer’s product guide, compiling data from company reports and civil society publications, ranks shops against a wide-ranging sustainability criteria. Zara, Marks and Spencer and H&M itself top the list, scoring between 9 and 10 out of 20. While topping the leader board seems to back up H&M’s claims, it is worth noting that the scores pale in comparison to the separately ranked ‘alternative clothes shops’. People Tree, Living Crafts, The Hemp Trading Company and Braintree come out as winners, running circles around high street brands all rating above 15. It seems as though sustainability is incompatible with the demands of fast fashion. As Shannon Whitehead puts it: “fast fashion can never truly be sustainable because the business model itself is inherently unsustainable”.
Even if our fashion industry appears to be growing more eco-conscious, the fast fashion high street chains are not doing as much as they could or should be to bring about real change. Ultimately, retailers respond to what consumers want, and what must occur is a marathon effort by us as shoppers to really think about what we are willing to pay for our style. Change in the fashion industry will follow suit. In the mean time, it may be unfeasible to commit to 100 percent ethical fashion, and near impossible on a budget, but the variety of alternatives available means that venturing off the high street is worth a try.
Swapping fast fashion retailers for brands that take sustainability as a core value is just one of the ways we could change the way we dress for the better. Buying locally, from vintage or charity shops, looking at labels, washing clothes at colder temperatures and avoiding the tumble drier are some of Whitehead’s tips to make our approach to clothing more environmentally and socially viable. Being aware of the impact of fast fashion, what our alternatives are and implementing realistic change means that anyone can dress with a clearer conscience. Ethical fashion clearly has a long way to go. For now, it will take giving up the fast fashion race entirely before we can reach a sustainable horizon.