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Sustainability: Reporting Vs. Practice

When browsing the websites of fashion retailers, it is not uncommon to come across the phrases ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘recycled material.’ It could be assumed that many consumers feel like they’re making a good decision when buying from companies that demonstrate such environmentally minded core values. But are these fashion retailers ethically correct to portray a sustainable vision when that’s only part of the picture?

Are they really being transparent, and doing their due diligence on topics such as labour standards and welfare?

To be clear, this blog post is not to discourage consumers from buying sustainable and environmentally friendly clothes. It’s to raise awareness of the gap between sustainability reporting, and sustainability practice.

All in all, the gap between sustainability reporting and sustainability practice is particularly worrisome in sectors that rely heavily on global supply chains, as is the case in the fast-fashion industry.

Let’s create a scenario. A consumer is looking to buy a new pair of jeans. Using a quick google search the consumer comes across brands such as Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, and H&M. After some quick browsing a decision is made to buy jeans from Levi’s due to their advertising “Better Clothes. Better Choices. Better Planet. A new line of sustainable denim that’s better for our planet.”

Purchase made. A satisfied customer with a new pair of sustainable jeans.

But how are you to know if a brand is actually sustainable?

H&M is a good example of a major fashion brand that is demonstrating sustainability on their website when in reality, they are simply greenwashing.

On their website, it reads “With us, it's super simple to find out where your clothes were made” followed by, “We believe that being transparent is an important part of becoming more sustainable.”

After some further research, it was quite shocking to learn how far this sustainability reporting was from their actual way of practising.

A campaign was launched in 2018 by the Clean Clothes Campaign called “Turn Around, H&M.”

This campaign was initiated after H&M published its “Roadmap towards fair living wages” and gave 850,000 workers hopes of a living wage by 2018. Now H&M is trying to cover up that commitment, pretending they have been saying something else all along.

Unfortunately, this is just part of the bigger picture. According to a report that focuses on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) it states that H&M has 118 factories that still lack safe exits, 159 factories that lack fire alarm and detection systems, and 44 factories that pose safety hazards that require immediate attention.

The Accord, which was established on 15th May 2015, has drastically reduced the risk of injury and death for millions of Bangladeshi garment workers. It was established after years of factory fires in Bangladesh, and more notably, the collapse of The Rana Plaza factory on the 24th of April 2013, which killed 1,133 people and critically injured thousands more.

So, can H&M really claim that they are sustainable when the livelihood of their garment workers is at risk? Can they really claim transparency whilst not taking responsibility for their supply chain? We’ll leave that for you to decide.

This raises the question, can fashion ever be sustainable?

Quite honestly. No.

The 21st century has seen an unbelievable boom in the fashion industry and this has not come without an incredible impact on the environment.

According to the UNECE, nearly 20% of global wastewater is produced by the fashion industry, which also emits about 10% of global carbon emissions. It’s hard to imagine that the clothes we are buying every day have this much impact on the environment.

Moreover, the UN estimates that to make just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 litres of water is required to just grow the one kilo of cotton needed for the pair of jeans. In comparison, one person would take 10 years to drink 10,000 litres of water.

But what if consumers buy clothes made from recycled material?

Take a shirt for example. A polyester shirt has more than twice the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt (5.5 kg CO2e vs. 2.1 kg CO2e). Switching to recycled polyester definitely seems to have its benefits. It is almost the same in terms of quality, and WRAP estimates that CO2 emissions are reduced by 32% in comparison to regular polyester.

However, according to Patty Grossman, co-founder of Two Sisters Ecotextiles, one issue concerning the recycling process of polyester is that the chips generated by mechanical recycling can vary in colour. Therefore, the suppliers want to dye it using chlorine-based bleaches.

Grossman explains that the “Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it hard to get good batch-to-batch colour consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, which requires high water, energy and chemical use.” Also when most rPET is processed by mechanical recycling,

The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment notes “through this process, the fibre can lose its strength and thus needs to be mixed with virgin fibre.” When recycled polyester is mixed with a virgin fibre, it makes it even harder, maybe even impossible to recycle the garment after use.

Can fashion retailers ever recycle their way out of this crisis?

According to the UN Environment, the average consumer buys 60% more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago and each item is only kept for half as long.

Global Fashion Agenda estimates that in 2015 alone the global textiles and clothing industry was responsible for the consumption of 79 billion cubic metres of water, 1,715 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 92 million tonnes of waste.

By 2030 and at current growth rates, these numbers could jump by at least 50%.

With this in mind, do you think that fashion could ever be sustainable?

What can you as a consumer do to help?

All of this information can be quite overwhelming. The buyerarchy of needs created by Sarah Lazarovic is a brilliant illustration that can guide you towards a more sustainable lifestyle, especially when it comes to making fashion choices.

Next time you think about making a new purchase, follow this simple framework to work out if it’s really necessary.

  1. Use what you have - When you take the time to organise your clothes, it’s surprising what hidden gems you can find lying around.

  2. Borrow - There are so many trends where people end up buying the same item of clothing. Use your friendship group to borrow clothes so that you all don’t end up with the same item of clothing!

  3. Swap - It seems like nearly anything can be shaped these days. So why not clothes? This saves on resources and you both get to benefit from it!

  4. Thrift - Who doesn’t love a good thrift bargain? Not only is it very affordable, but it often saves clothes from ending up in landfills.

  5. Make - This option might be a bit difficult, but there are endless tutorials on YouTube that can help you to make your own clothes. The satisfaction of a handmade item of clothing is priceless.

  6. Buy - This should be the absolute last option.

So ask yourself the question, do I need this? Or do I just want it?

When you are making a purchase, spend some time digging a little deeper into the company. Are they just greenwashing? Or is this a company that is truly working in a sustainable and ethical way?

Hopefully, this framework will encourage you to look carefully at what you already have and care for it that little bit more!

The Corporate Rebels Foundation has a mission to end inhumane workplaces. Help us to create awareness and spread the message.

This article was written by the Corporate Rebels Foundation. Unfortunately, there are still too many inhumane workplaces that we as consumers are contributing too, without being aware of it. Creating awareness around this topic is one of the ways to get a step closer towards our mission to end inhumane workplaces. Support our work and donate now.


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