As we approach COP26, next week’s crucial global climate summit, we ask whether fashion brands are currently doing enough to mitigate the worst of their impact on the planet.
Fast fashion retailers have long been the dominant force on the high street and in online retail.
The model is familiar: sell high volumes of garments that are low cost - and often low quality - only for them to be quickly discarded and replaced by another set of low value items.
But textile production is not low cost, and the implications - both in terms of natural and human resources - are substantial.
Producing an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, fashion is a major contributor to the climate emergency.
It is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Ahead of COP26, which takes place in Glasgow in a week’s time, a number of the major fast fashion brands have set out pledges of sustainability.
Among them, Primark says it is planning to use more recycled and sustainably-sourced materials by 2027 and Asos says it wants to be carbon net zero by 2030.
These aims sound laudable but are they achievable and, crucially, are they enough?
“At least these brands are starting to talk about this, which is progress,” says Noelle Hatley, senior lecturer in fashion business at Manchester’s Fashion Institute - a part of Manchester Metropolitan University.
“But sustainability is not just about achieving net zero emissions… It's about so many other things.
“My main criticism of both Asos’ and Primark’s goals is that they’re very vague,” says Noelle.
“What we need is brands to be setting meaningful targets - for example, [a pledge that] by 2030, 95% of their factories will be paying workers a living wage.”
“It needs to be measurable.”
And therein lies the difficulty: sustainability is such a nebulous term, it can be hard to decipher what businesses really mean.
“This lack of a definition allows brands to profess that they are sustainable,” comments Hatley, “but they might be addressing just one small aspect of sustainability.
“For example, it might be organically grown cotton, but then the garment workers might not be paid properly…”
Worse still, it could even be forced labour. According to a report last year by the Center for Global Policy, more than a fifth of the world’s cotton comes from an area of China where there is “significant evidence” of forced labour.
The workers may not be paid at all.
An agreed legal definition of the term ‘sustainable’ could be a useful tool in the fight against greenwashing and textiles could look to the likes of the food industry on this, where ‘Fair Trade', ‘organic’ and various other labelling are legally protected definitions.
As it stands, however, this doesn’t look likely any time soon.
Lack of Transparency is "Deliberate"
One of the things the fashion industry has come under fire for over recent years is its lack of transparency.
A report by Fashion Revolution in June found of the 250 biggest global retailers 99% did not disclose the number of staff being paid a living wage.
“We need brands to take more responsibility across their supply chains and be more transparent, giving crucial information to customers so they can make informed choices,” says Charlotte Turner - an independent consultant, formerly the head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age.
The lack of transparency is “deliberate”, contends Hatley, who previously worked at fast fashion retailer, Matalan.
“They are at least starting to address it, which is an improvement on a few years ago, but it’s not a good story they’ve got to reveal, so they’re not going to make it easy.”
It’s simply not in the interest of brands to disclose the practices of their manufacturing partners, when there is zero benefit in it for them.
Discount retailers and fast fashion brands often bear the brunt of the criticism, but the luxury end of the sector also has a crucial role to play - since other brands take their cues from the practices of these aspirational fashion houses.
“In my view, luxury brands should be leading the way – but even the brands that are charging huge amounts of money are very unsustainable,” says Noelle.
This area of the market is arguably where there is more wiggle room with profit margins, which should make it easier to source materials sustainably and pay workers a living wage.
Luxury Brands Could Change "Overnight"
But with reports just a few years ago of Burberry destroying more than £90million worth of stock between 2013-18 to “protect its brand”, many luxury brands are falling far short of their responsibilities to act in a more ethical way.
“There has been a lot of progress in this sector, but we’re still not moving fast enough if we want to meet global environmental and social targets,” comments Charlotte.
Of course some brands are working harder in this area than others: the LVMH group (Christian Dior, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs etc), for example, and the Kering group (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen etc) are doing more than most.
“But when you drill down into the detail,” Noelle says, “the best of them are only at about 50 out of 100 in relation to the way workers are treated.
“They could change the problem overnight,” she adds. “The issue is about the brand’s focus and it being a business objective – as opposed to everything just being about profit.“
But much of this is tinkering around the edges when many see the fast fashion model itself as the main problem.
“We’re stuck in this growth model which is focused on selling more and more products, not better ones,” says Charlotte.
“The system, as it is now, is totally broken. We need to move away from this model and return to creating high quality products that can be worn for years and passed on to another user.”
Noelle agrees: ‘There needs to be an acceptance that what we pay currently for our clothes is too little.
“What we’re paying is unsustainable.”
Both call on the brands themselves to take more responsibility in this area, and also for the education of shoppers - in terms of the general issues at play, but also on how individual items are sourced.
“A lot of the onus is put on consumers,” says Charlotte, “but the responsibility really does lie with brands.
“I think we need enforced marketing regulations, including requiring that any claims relating to sustainability should be backed up by evidence.”
Government Support "Key"
Similarly, Noelle calls on the government to take more action in this area: “Governments being more prepared to support sustainable initiatives and demanding more transparency from firms and businesses, in general, is key.”
However, with the UK government in 2019 rejecting a 1p tax on each fast fashion garment sold, to go towards environmental costs, it looks like there is still some progress to be made here too.
Noelle points out: “Given what we’re just coming out of I think the focus will go back to being revenue and turnover and how good our GDP is.
“[The government] won’t want to openly be seen to make it more difficult for companies that are successful - if you measure success by revenue and profit.”
Many advocate for institutions to take into consideration factors besides profit and loss when measuring the success of a business or an economy, with Mary Portas releasing a book on the subject earlier this year.
In Rebuild: How to thrive in the Kindness Economy, Portas argues that there needs to be a new value system where, in order to flourish, businesses must understand the fundamental role they play in the fabric of our lives, taking into account other factors like wellbeing and environmental and social progress.
“Currently if you want to shop from more ethical brands, you’re generally not going to find that on the high street - but online,” says Charlotte.
The pandemic has seen shoppers turn to online retail more than ever - and a result has been to offer the smaller brands and retailers, prioritising responsible social and environmental practices, a slightly more level playing field than previously.
“It’s given more of a chance to those smaller independents who don’t have bricks and mortar stores,” says Charlotte.
Noelle comments: “It’s encouraging because these small brands are giving bigger players ideas of what they can do.”
“But ultimately it’s got to be the mainstream fashion brands who address these environmental issues because that’s where the big numbers are,” she adds.
“It’s got to be the H&Ms, Zaras and Asoses who get onboard because they’re the ones that are going to change the world.”
COP26 takes place in Glasgow between 31 October - 12 November 2021.