Over the past few of years, we’ve seen a rise in the number of ‘sustainable’ clothing lines offered by high street retailers, and 2017 in particular saw these get a real boost. Brands like Primark, H&M, and Zara have all made big claims about their products and their environmental credentials, but while many might argue this is a step in the right direction, there are huge problems with this. From employing ‘greenwashing’ tactics (using vague buzzwords to make your products sound more sustainable than they are) to distracting from the real issues within the industry, these lines do more harm than good.

Before we discuss some of the big issues that come from these lines, let’s look a little closer and H&M, Zara, and Primark’s so-called sustainable offerings.

Zara’s JOIN LIFE Range

Zara now has a range of clothing called JOIN LIFE, which they claim does three things: use more sustainable raw materials, utilise technologies that save water, and use processes that reduce carbon emissions. More information can be found on their website, so it seems as if they are being pretty transparent about the whole thing, but when you actually read closely, it seems like they’re saying very little. Take this quote:

‘One of our aims is to increase the amount of cotton that comes from more environmentally and socially sustainable sources.’

Let’s break that down a bit. Firstly, it says that this is an ‘aim’, so it doesn’t actually discuss any tangible goals in terms of timelines or amounts. Second, they say the aim is to ‘increase the amount’ – again, by how much? Theoretically, they could make one item out of a more sustainable material and they’ll be fulfilling this. Then they say ‘more environmentally…sustainable sources’ – more than what? How much more? What meets your criteria for a source that is sustainable enough to use? And then finally, they mention socially sustainable sources but there isn’t actually anything on this page that discusses the social side of the process, or who is actually involved in making the clothes.

So in reality, this line could be only very slightly more environmental than their normal line, but they are making huge claims that make it seem like you’d be saving the planet by buying from the range!

 

H&M’s Conscious Collection

H&M are perhaps most well known for their sustainable initiatives out of all the high street brands, but specifics are hard to come by. Details about what makes their conscious collection so ‘conscious’ are hard to find. One of the main claims of these products is that their cotton content is organic, but it doesn’t go into any detail further than this. We’ve written about the issues with cotton before, but one of the biggest issues when it comes to cotton is water consumption. It takes a lot of water to produce cotton, which can have devastating consequences on natural landscapes, but I can’t find anywhere where H&M says how they are dealing with this issue.

Then we need to look at what kind of items make it into the ‘conscious’ collection. For example, Marie Claire have an article about a sequin dress that was a ‘hero piece’ that was selling out quickly. Yes, a dress literally covered in sequins. Those tiny little plastic things which wreak havoc on the oceans. It seems like H&M are trying to say all the right things that sound good to shoppers that might be feeling guilty about the amount they buy, but they’re not actually living out sustainable values – because, really, what actual sustainable fashion brand would sell a dress covered in sequins? And what poor person had to hand sew on all those sequins? Glam Monitor reported that often, sequins are sewn on by child labourers. Again, sustainability is made a priority, but there seems to be little information about the people who actually made these ‘sustainable’ clothes.

Primark’s Organic Cotton Range

Out of the three high street stores discussed here, Primark’s website has the best information on its practices – it’s really easily accessible, goes into lots of detail, and there’s even an FAQ. However, they are very quick to alleviate responsibility. The first thing they say is ‘we don’t buy raw materials directly. Instead, the factories or suppliers that we have approved are responsible for sourcing the raw materials used in our products.’ This is a sentiment that is repeated often, particularly in the Q&A section in regards to questions about workers’ rights and wokring conditions, and whether Primark uses child or slave labour.

One answer in the Q&A is particularly interesting. When asked if Primark uses Fairtrade materials, this is the answer: ‘No, we don’t currently use Fairtrade materials. We are however working to sustainably produce one of the main fibres used in our clothes – cotton.’ This is interesting because although many organisations, such as Greenpeace, campaign for both sustainable practices and fair working conditions and pay – they are not the same issue. It might be a positive thing that they are sourcing cotton sustainably, but that’s irrelevant! Is that sustainable cotton Fairtrade? Why not? This seems like a clever tactic to dimish the fact that they don’t use fair trade by answering a different question.

So – is their cotton organic? Primark have started a Sustainable Cotton Scheme, where they work with local communities in India and give training to female farmers, showing them how to use more sustainable methods (including reducing the amount of water and chemical pesticides used) as well as farm more efficiently to increase their yields. Of course, I can’t go out to India and see for myself, but Primark are giving more information than both H&M and Zara and this seems to be a good plan.

Then problem, then, is how can they be selling organic cotton so cheaply? We’ve spoken to many ethical company owners who say that it is just not possible to sell organic cotton products at Primark’s prices and make a profit. I wonder if Primark are deliberately making a loss here. Bear with me, Primark deliberately making a loss on some products might sound like a silly idea, but it might be part of a clever scheme to increase their profits in other areas.

Primark lost a lot of trust and respect after it came out that they were using sweatshops, and were involved in the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over 1000 people. It’s pretty common knowledge that Primark has unethical practices in terms of labour, so this push for organic cotton could be part of a PR campaign to repair their image and encourage customers back to their store. We can see this literally happening in the question about Fairtrade – they’re literally using their organic cotton to distract from questions about their garment workers.

They’re also hopping on the sustainable trend that’s happening right now. People seem to be more and more interested in environmental issues, so Primark are hopping on this trend in order to attract these people into their store. So customers might come in to a store to check out the organic cotton range, and while they’re in there pick up a few bits from the rest of the store…after all, it’s good to support companies working to improve their environmental practices!

What are the problems with high street ‘sustainable’ lines?

One of the biggest issues with these lines is that they claim to be doing ‘damage control’ – dealing with the consequences of fast fashion – while still perpetuating and pushing the root cause! The only real way to tackle the problems in the fashion industry is to slow it down, stop pushing out a new ‘season’ of clothing every week, buy less, produce better quality items that will last and be loved. Companies like H&M are still pushing fashion at an incredibly fast pace, and making a few of these items out of slightly more sustainable materials is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to making a difference.

There’s also so much greenwashing going on. Zara claim that they are aiming to use more sustainable materials, but go into very little detail about what that actually means. The name itself, JOIN LIFE, has all these positive connotations, maybe about improving the lives of their workers, or using more natural plant-based materials. By choosing a name with vague, positive connotations, and making very general statements about improving sustainable practices, Zara is giving the overall impression that they’re doing great things for the environment, but do they actually have solid methods and goals to back this up? Are they actually making big changes, or changes that are just big enough that they can shout about it, without actually going very far? Greenwashing is incredibly problematic, because it makes customers think that by buying from that brand they are helping the environment, when actually they probably aren’t. Any customers who might be interested in buying from more sustainable companies might then spend their money on fake-sustainable companies like those we’ve discussed today.

This is another problem in itself – these ‘sustainable’ lines distract from brands that are actually doing great things for the environment. The positive takeaway from all of this is that it shows that customers are becoming more and more interested in environmental products, otherwise these high street brands wouldn’t be spending their time on it. However, they are potentially stealing customers away from actual sustainable brands! There are so many brilliant companies out there making clothes from well sourced or recycled materials, working closely with local communities, innovating with materials and methods, to produce well-made, good quality, sustainable clothes made by people who are given a fair living wage. But when these big companies greenwash and shout about their flimsy sustainable efforts, customers may instead buy from them, rather than seek out these great companies.

Overall, these high street fashion stores are jumping on this ‘sustainability’ trend, saying all the right things to tick all the right boxes, but are ignoring some key issues, and aren’t actually living out the values that drive this sustainability trend. Like H&M’s sequin dress from their ‘conscious’ range. Many real sustainable brands are against the use of sequins, partly because they are made from plastic, and party because they contribute to the wider problem of small microplastics that end up in our oceans and get eaten by ocean life. Rather than have a well-rounded sustainable model, H&M have instead chosen to shout ‘the dress is organic!’ and then cover it in plastic without a second thought.

And through all of this, the garment workers are forgotten, as they are time and time again. Sure, some of these items might be organic or more sustainable than their normal lines, but many of these items are sitll being made by people who have extremely low wages, terrible wokring conditions, and very few workers’ rights. Primark shouts about the fact that they are training female cotton farmers in India, enabling them to increase their yields and make more money, but what do they pay these farmers for the organic cotton? Is it a fair price? Or are they just creating a community of farmers who are obligated to sell organic cotton to them at very low prices?

 

If you are interested in buying more sustainable clothing, I would highly encourage you to ignore the efforts of high street brands and instead opt for smaller companies who produce beautiful, sustainable clothing – brands that we try and give a platform to here at Revival Collective. And don’t forget the ethical side – it’s not just about saving the planet, it’s about saving the people who live here too.

What do you think about the high street’s sustainable claims? What are your favourite truly sustainable fashion brands? Let us know by leaving a comment or tweeting us @revival_collect