This month Maria Henry explores fast fashion’s efforts towards sustainability. Is it real or is it performative?
By now, most of us are aware that fast fashion is taking a massive toll on our earth’s natural environment. The overproduction of garments using nonsustainable methods has led the fashion industry into being one of the top contributors to global warming and the ecological suffering we face today. The main issue here is that the fashion industry isn’t slowing down – especially in the wake of social media and online shopping, fast fashion brands are growing like they have never before and show no signs of halting production.
So, what can be done about it? Well, with the help of environmental campaigners and with a growing pressure from consumers, a lot of fast fashion companies have begun taking small steps towards becoming more sustainable platforms. Though these are only small steps in the right direction, they work together to create a much larger stride towards changing the way the industry functions.
As LaRhea Pepper, managing Director of ecological charity TextileExchange explains: “The textile industry draws significantly upon the ecosystem for the raw materials that create our fabrics, but some production processes tend to be more ‘unfriendly’ than others. The great news is that as major brands become increasingly eco-conscious, sustainability standards are also gaining traction across the industry, such as the internationally recognized Organic Content Standard, Responsible Down and Wools Standards, and Global Recycled Standard by Textile Exchange as well as the Global Organic Textile Standard.”
Since 2017, over 39 major fashion brands such as ASOS, H&M, Nike, and Burberry took a pledge with TextileExchange to create an 100% sustainable cotton production line by 2025. This means that everything used for the garments would be sustainably and ethically sourced, having a smaller ecological footprint and a higher level of ethical production (i.e. no underpaid workers in sweatshops). Now that we’re in 2020, we reflect on the progress some of these major fast fashion companies have taken towards sustainability, who has actually stuck to their pledge?
Earlier this year ASOS released its ‘Circular Collection’. This collection had a few main aims based on three points for ‘circularity’, as defined by the environmental charity The Ellen McArthur Foundation. These included: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
On their website they introduce the collection to their buyers, writing: “Style meets sustainability in our innovative new ASOS line, which is all about future-proofing fashion. So, not only are these pieces as eco-friendly as possible, they’re also 100% on-point. Think fresh cuts in the season’s key colours, with some throwback 90s vibes added in for good measure. The kind of fashion that’s good for your wardrobe, and better for the environment.”
ASOS defines its collection’s three main aims as sustainably, durability and versatility, and, finally, recycling.
SUSTAINABILITY: They aimed to use only recycled materials instead of virgin ones like polyester or nylon, which are processed with petroleum and coal which creates damaging effects on the environment when processed and extracted. They also claimed to use all of the fabric they had for the garments, so that none went to waste disposal or landfills and everything was repurposed.
DURABILITY AND VERSITITLY: They wanted to make products that would last a long time and could be worn in lots of different ways. This includes things such as reversable shirts and jackets, unisex clothing, and dresses that can be worn in multiple styles. They also vowed to include care guides to show their consumers how to properly care for fabrics such as denim, meaning they’ll last longer.
RECYCLING: Creating products from recycled materials that can be rerecycled following their use.
While this all sounds extremely promising, the collection has gained a substantial amount of criticism for its ‘performative environmentalism’ and some have even described the collection as an attempt to ‘greenwash’. Greenwashing is a term that was first introduced in the 1980’s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe when companies pretend to be going ‘green’ or over-emphasise their environmental values when they really aren’t doing that much to help the cause or change their production processes.
As journalist Sophie Benson reported for the Independent, “ASOS states that each piece within the collection must meet at least two of eight principles in order to be considered circular. This is where the problems start. The three foundations of the circular economy inherently work in tandem with each other. If you don’t design out waste, you don’t keep products and materials in use. If you don’t tackle pollution, you can’t regenerate natural systems. You cannot regenerate natural systems if you don’t keep materials in use because you constantly tap them for virgin resources”.
ASOS also do not yet have a system in place for when people want to rerecycle their clothes. They wrote on their website that all of the fabric can be recycled once more after it reaches the end of its use; however, they do not provide any sort of system that allows people to send back their clothes to do this. This means that most of these clothes, once disposed of, will end up in landfill. In 2018 ClothesAid reported that of every 30kg of clothes sent to recycling, only 4.5% of it is actually able to be re-used, the rest ends up as waste. As Benson writes, “where do these easily disassembled, recyclable clothes go if ASOS aren’t the ones to actually close the loop?”.
There is also the issue that this small collection is nothing in comparison to the thousands of fast fashion items ASOS continue to manufacture constantly (and sends out in single-use plastic packaging). Though it’s a small step towards change and an interesting idea, it is still an extremely minor effort in the face of continued damage.
Similarly, to ASOS, Nike has created a few collections over the last few years which aim to use recycled materials. When you search for sustainability on their website, they claim that “transforming trash into source materials to make our products is one of the biggest ways we can reduce waste and lower our global carbon footprint.” They released the Vapormax 2020 Flyknit this year, a shoe “designed with sustainability in mind.” The Vapormax is made from at least 50% recycled materials and offers the same comfort and technology as its usual sportswear, encouraging athletes to take the leap towards a sustainable future. On their website they claim that the Flyknit is made with an average of 60% less waste than in traditional footwear manufacturing. In creating the fabric for the Flyknit, 31 million water bottles were diverted from landfills in 2019 and these were repurposed as materials for the shoes.
The ‘Nike Flyleather’ is also supposedly made from at least 50% recycled leather fibre and this means it has a smaller carbon footprint than if they were to use traditional leather manufacturing
fashion like they do for most of their shoes. They have also worked to improve cutting efficiency, meaning fewer waste materials are created than in traditional cut-and-sew methods for full-grain leather.
The Nike Air soles, which have been designed since 1994, now contain at least 50% recycled manufacturing waste – and since 2008, they have been made with 100% renewable energy at Nike’s AirMI facilities. They claim that they now reuse more than 90% of the waste from materials used for the Air soles to make new innovative cushioning systems.
They also mention the agreement to create sustainable cotton lines, explaining on their website that “Since 2010, we’ve been on a drive toward 100% sustainable cotton. Certified organic cotton, recycled cotton and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) are three ways that we are pushing sustainability in our materials”.
Though this does sound like Nike is taking a big strive forward in terms of creating new technologies that incorporate recycled materials and still have the same comforts and functions as their world-renowned sporting products, how sustainable actually are they?
Well, unfortunately, just like ASOS, though the brand is taking steps towards sustainability, it still does not account for the hundreds of other products it creates via un-sustainable methods. Leather production is a big issue for the brand as the process of making leather leaks harmful chemicals into the environment and by many perspectives is also unethical as it involves the harvesting of animals for fashion. Though they claim they are taking steps towards rectifying this, they company just isn’t there yet in terms of sustainability.
There is also the issue of ethical production. In February 2020, EthicalConsumer.com reported that a large Nike supplier factory, Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co., had been employing Uighurs, a small marginalised ethnic group from the Xinjiang region of China. These people were working “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour” and there was no evidence found that Nike was paying them a living wage. This under-paid sweatshop labour is a key factor of fast fashion which allows companies to make products at a low price and sell them for a mass profit. In 2014, Nike reported that it costs an average of $28.50 to manufacture one pair of sneakers and ship them to the United States. These shoes would then be sold for $100+, meaning the company makes over 70% profit on all that it sells and still does not pay its workers outside of the West enough for basic necessities.
What happens next?
Obviously, the efforts fast-fashion companies are taking towards sustainability are flawed and far from world-changing environmentalist movements at present.
However, as small as these steps may be, they do reflect a conscious effort on behalf of these companies to start making change. As consumer demand for ethical products grows, companies are having to change their production to cater to this demand. At the end of the day, the fashion industry is a business and sellers need to know they can continue to make money. When they begin to lose profit as consumers choose to shop ethically, they will have to begin to change their processes to reflect their consumer base’s needs.
Therefore, though we must continue to hope and campaign for ethical change from the top of these companies, as consumers we can also play a large part in creating change together. By shopping ethically, making conscious choices about what we buy and confronting companies when they try to greenwash – we can begin to make a path towards a more sustainable future.
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