Recently we took a look at the ethics behind the fast fashion business model. H&M and Zara are leading a trend towards fast fashion companies making announcements on their action on ethical concerns. But is that even possible? And what are these major players really doing to reduce their impact on people, animals and the environment?
Whatever your conclusions when you read our review of the issues, you can get up to date ethical ratings for Zara, H&M and around 1,000 fashion brands on the free Good On You app.
Of all the five brands investigated in our last article, H&M has the most extensive information on its sustainability and workers’ rights commitments.
In 2014 H&M released its Sustainability Report. It provides detailed information on all aspects of H&M’s supply chain – from raw materials and garment production to transport and sales. The report outlines the company’s initiatives aimed at reducing water waste, increasing the use of sustainable fabrics and improving the treatment of animals involved in the supply chain.
H&M has made commitments to the RE100 campaign, which encourages large businesses to commit to 100% renewable power. H&M has already reported a move to 100% renewable electricity in the UK and Netherlands, and 18% renewable energy use globally.
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H&M is a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, alongside the WWF. This initiative is aimed at making cotton farming more sustainable by teaching better practices, reducing water and chemical use, and protecting workers’ rights. The company is also the largest user of organic cotton worldwide. This is great news for the environment, and you can read more about the benefits of organic cotton here.
Reuse and Recycle
H&M has attempted to address the inherent unsustainable nature of fast fashion through a garment collection initiative. By taking unwanted clothes to be recycled or re-sold, fewer items end up in landfill.
But it’s not all good news
H&M is the only major fast fashion retailer in Australia that sources garments from Cambodia. Garment workers in Cambodia are paid the minimum wage – which is only 25% of what is calculated to be a living wage.
In 2011, there were reports of mass fainting of workers in a factory that supplied H&M.
With over 2000 stores worldwide, this brand is often touted as the pioneer of the fast fashion model. But what is Zara doing to ensure that low prices don’t come at a cost to workers, animals and the environment?
Supply Chain Transparency
Zara’s Spanish parent company, Inditex, also produces Pull&Bear and Bershka. Unlike all the other brands, 50% of Inditex’s production takes place close to its head offices in Spain. This makes it a bit easier to monitor companies in the supply chain, including their adherence to the Code of Conduct.
Zara is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, that works to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. Part of this commitment includes goals to reduce energy usage in the production process and in stores. While not as extensive as H&M, Zara also publishes sustainability goals. These include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 2005 levels by 2020.
Zara has pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton, an industry rife with child and adult forced labour. The brand has also joined the Better Cotton Initiative to promote sustainability and best practices for workers and the environment in the cotton industry.
When choosing raw materials to produce garments, Zara has committed to consider its impact on biodiversity. Initiatives like seed banks and reforestation can help protect biodiversity and reduce the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry.
But there’s still more work to be done
In 2011 Inditex was accused of using suppliers that forced migrant workers in Brazil to work in slave-like conditions. Despite denying the claim, the company later agreed to compensate the workers. Inditex also made an agreement with Brazilian government to allocate 1.4 million euros to social purposes.
A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign in 2013 found that Inditex still sourced products from Chinese factories that sandblasted jeans, despite promising to end the practice. Sandblasting involves firing abrasive sand onto denim under high pressure as a cheap and easy way to produce ‘distressed jeans’. This process is known to cause potentially lethal pulmonary disease.
Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads investigation found that 6/10 Zara samples tested positive for NPEs and 2 tested positive for cancer-causing amines released by azo dyes – Zara was the only brand of the 20 assessed to test positive for the latter.
Is this vision of “ethical fast fashion” a long-term trend or just a fad?
H&M and Zara have both made significant commitments to creating a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. There is still work to do to reduce the impact of the fashion industry and turn policies and commitments into real benefits for the people, animals and environments involved in the supply chains of major retailers.
The commitments already made by H&M and Zara are a start, and continued pressure from consumers will ensure that the move towards ethical fast fashion continues.
We’ve given both H&M and Zara an ‘It’s a Start’ rating – 3 out of 5 – in the Good On You app. This balances their extensive list of commitments above, their high ratings in reports like the Australian Fashion Report 2016 and Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index on one hand, and the problematic nature of the fast fashion model with it’s excessive use of resources and the time and price pressures it places on the labour force. For full details on the brands’ ratings for labour, the environment and animals check the Good On You app.
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Original article by Ann Emmanuel. Minor edits and editors notes post publication