Fashion is now the second biggest polluter in the world. Our fast fashion mentality is having a devastating impact on the environment, with 350,000 tonnes of clothing a year added to landfill in the UK alone. Shoppers no longer have to wait half a year for a new seasonal look. Instead, financially focused retailers are cashing in on the ‘fast fashion’ that now arrives in store every week.
The high street fashion chains feeding this worrying trend have responded with some small steps to make high-street fashion more ethical. A 2016 report by UK alternative consumer organisation Ethical Consumer shows H&M and New Look scoring best overall against their combined standards for environmental impact, respect for workers and animals, political considerations and the sustainability and lifecycle of the product itself. They also highlight M&S for its many initiatives to make its fashion range more sustainable, although the company scores poorly on its supermarket business.
Consumer campaigning has led to increased transparency. Many leading clothing retailers have signed up to the Bangladesh Accord, which, prompted by the Rana Plaza tragedy, creates a reporting bar aimed at ensuring safer garment manufacture in the country. More than 150 have signed the Cotton Pledge, against child and forced labour in Uzbekistan. 10% of the global industry has committed to stop using toxic chemicals by 2020, and outdoor clothing companies are cleaning up their goose and duck down supply chains to banish animal cruelty.
There is also wider recognition among brands of workers’ conditions and wages as a core issue, with almost half the bigger players now scoring well on supply-chain management, which includes conditions at their suppliers’ factories. An EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act now both require more supply-chain transparency by law, with other legislation across the globe echoing this.
While this progress is all encouraging, a clothing production cycle that does no harm to people or planet still seems far away. There is little Fairtrade clothing on the high street, only a couple of organic ranges, and little recycled clothing available, although some companies operate their own clothes recycling schemes. Ethical Consumer is still unable to recommend any high street retailers as clothing ‘Best Buys’, instead suggesting alternative vendors such as People Tree, Living Crafts or THTC, who were set up with ethics at the forefront of their design and production policies. Even the worst of these scored better than the very best of the high-street vendors.
While H&M in particular has made itself a high-street beacon for sustainable goods including recycled and organic fabrics, little has been achieved in recent years to mitigate the volume of waste arising from mass-produced fashion. By rejecting the whole fast fashion narrative and shopping more sustainably we can send a clear message to all clothing retailers still trading on the ‘disposable’ mentality which leads consumers to discard clothing more often. You could even argue that offering recycling facilities is a distraction from the core issue, which is that we can all now afford to buy far more clothes than we actually need, with unnecessary cost to the planet occurring throughout the entire lifecycle of each garment, from land-wasting material cultivation through polluting fabric manufacture or cruelly-sourced animal materials to transport and processing it as waste.
Most of us already have more clothes in our wardrobes than we could ever wear. For when you do need new clothing, buying second-hand is one of the simplest ways to tackle waste. If you do consider buying something newly manufactured, at least choose a classic that’s well made and will look stylish for many years.
See Ethical Consumer’s comprehensive guide of the issues at ethicalconsumer.org