With high street brands like Marks & Spencers, Asos and H&M launching (or have already launched) sustainable collections, my scepticism wants to question the ethical motivation behind the hype. Do these brands really care about the environmental, social and economic impact they are having, or is this just another way to market their product? It seems strange that if a company was concerned about their ethical practises, they would limit their policy to a fraction of their trade, but should instead make tracks to reform their entire business. By pure definition, a fast-fashion model, of which H&M, Cos, & Other Stories and all of their partner brands run by, is not consciously minded. To buy at the speed they are selling, no matter how organic the fabric is, is still in excess of what the world can cope with. I want to try to understand what H&M defines as trading ‘consciously’ and if this initiative is as authentic as they’d have you believe.
H&M breakdown their policy in 7 commitments:
1 Provide fashion for conscious customers
2 Choose and reward responsible partners
3 Be ethical
4 Be climate smart
5 Reduce, reuse, recycle
6 Use natural resources responsible
7 Strengthen communities
On face value, they appear to be taking the right action to creating sustainable fashion, but how much of it is true? Despite their number 2 commitment citing that they will only work with responsible partners, this month, the Independent reported that H&M were found to be working with Turkish factories who use child labour to produce their clothes. After the 2013 Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh (another manufacturer for H&M) you’d expect the company who pride themselves on setting an example for a sustainable future, would care to enforce stricter measures into auditing their suppliers. In response to the reports, H&M said “that they had taken action to return the children to education and support their families.” But I have to wonder if this was an easy way out of the controversy. There is every opportunity for all high street brands to build a transparent relationship with their suppliers, which demonstrates to me that they just don’t care.
The question of ethics and sustainability doesn’t just lay with social and economic responsibility. With 70% of the world’s water used in agriculture, including the production of cotton, before a garment is even conceived, its environmental impact is huge. It is said to take 700 gallons of water to produce just one cotton shirt, the equivalent to 17.5 loads of laundry. Of course, cotton is not the only material that contributes to a shirt; the plastic buttons, fabric dye and polyester labels (to name a few) all have an environmental impact. It’s fantastic practise to use organic cotton, but we mustn’t forget that volume of production is as important as the practises we use.
The sheer volume of the H&M operation is another environmental minefield. With more than 3,900 stores worldwide, we have to factor in vast energy consumption, transportation costs and everyday disposal within a store. On top of which, when the garments enter our homes, they will continue to consume, whether it be through washing, ironing and eventually throwing away.
Of course, companies should take a massive part of the responsibility when it comes to practises like these. But as the 2015 documentary, The True Cost, uncovers, Western demand for masses of cheap clothing causes a domino effect of squeezing profits down the supply chain. From brand to the supplier, who in turn take it from the workers and then eventually from their welfare, leaving factories with hot, cramped and dangerous conditions. Hand in hand, consumers, the media and brands need to reconsider and reform how we are shopping.