H&M and other global fashion brands are receiving praise for their ranking in the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index. Note — this is a transparency index versus a sustainability or ethical score. Before we applaud them (and give them our business), let’s consider what actually needs to happen for fashion to stop being an ecological and ethical disaster.
The impact of Covid 19 on the fashion industry is colossal. Sales have plummeted, shops are closed and workers are being laid off in their thousands. Worst of all is the situation in major manufacturing countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam where many thousands of workers are left without an income as household fashion brands withold or delay payment for garments already produced. Not since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, killing 1134 garment workers in Bangladesh, has the brutal logic of the industry been so plain to see.
Yes, for many people hooked on fast fashion, the global pandemic is providing an opportunity for a breather. On the mind as well as the wallet. And, perhaps, a realisation that monthly, if not weekly hauls of cheap garments are not necessary or even desirable.
Before we applaud H&M for scoring highest on transparency, and feeling less guilty about spending our money there, let’s take a step back. Being ranked on transparency is potentially confusing for the average person who isn’t versed in sustainability. Is it important? Yes. Does transparency = sustainability? Not one bit.
The report investigates brands with a minimum turnover of $400m (£320m) — excluding the many smaller, ethical brands that have a much greater handle on what happens in their supply chains.
For anyone interested in seriously reducing their negative impact via fashion we should instead be asking — what would it take for the fashion industry to be sustainable or, at least, less disastrous from an ecological and ethical standpoint?
Here’s where we are:
More than two tonnes of clothing are bought EACH MINUTE in the UK (Oxfam, 2019)
Globally, 80% of garments end up in incinerators or landfill (Global Fashion Agenda, 2017)
In a survey of leading UK retailers, 77% believed there was a likelihood of modern slavery somewhere in their supply chain (Hult Research & Ethical Trading Institute)
In fiscal year 2017, global gross sales of the H&M Group amounted to about 27.7 billion U.S. dollars, and net profit of 2.5 billion USD. Billionaire owner and chairman of H&M, Stefan Persson is worth $15 billion.
Yet, H&M has failed to honour (and subsequently dropped) its commitment in 2013 to pay garment workers a living wage, despite benefiting reputationally from making that commitment (Clean Clothes Campaign).
From an environmental standpoint, fast fashion is totally incompatible with sustainability. Brands like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo rely on constant and regular consumption of garments. They rely on cheap, insecure labour overseas, require enormous quantities of plastic and natural fibres (and associated water and pesticides) and pollute freshwater and oceans across the globe. Billions of garments are produced ever year, the vast majority destined for landfill.
During the current crisis brands are heavily discounting to try and keep cash flowing. Yet western consumers wear a fraction of the clothing in their wardrobe and many of our garments would fail to pass the minimum 30 wears test.
Longer term it may be possible for brands to change their business models so that renting and recycling of clothing is the norm (and big brands talk good game about ‘circularity), but that is a long way off. Until then sustainable fashion needs to be about buying less, WAY less, buying secondhand and repairing or altering the clothing we already own.
Where we do buy new, the people that can afford to spend a little more (which is indeed quite possible if overall you are buying fewer garments) should look to independent ethical brands that focus on quality, sustainable use of materials, producing in line with demand, and guaranteeing decent wages and conditions for workers.
If you’re interested in true sustainable fashion, the ‘less and better’ mantra is a good rule of thumb. As many wise folk have said, the most sustainable garment is the one you already own.
Reports like the Fashion Transparency Index are important in lifting the lid on an extremely dirty and exploitative industry. But scoring highly is not necessarily cause for celebration and back-slapping by corporate executives. As consumers we need to keep the pressure on and hold major brands to account on their practices.
There are commentators way better qualified than me to give you a grounding in what good practice looks like and what is well-funded greenwash. Follow Aja Barber (and support on Patreon if you like her work), Slow Factory, and FashionRevolution ID for an excellent starting point.
Since reading the article I came across an excellent article by Melissa Watt including a timeline of H&M’s dodgy practices in the last decade.