What Is The High Street Actually Doing About Sustainability?

Photo: Courtesy of Mango
We hear a lot about ‘fast fashion’. This catch-all may be a short, memorable and useful term to describe the industry’s relationship with clothes, but what does it actually mean? In a nutshell, fast fashion is a descriptor of society’s obsession with relentless consumption. This insatiable hunger creates unsustainable demand, meaning that big brands have to cut corners to deliver huge quantities at low prices. The result is environmental pollution, courtesy of cheap, synthetic fibres, chemical dyes, air freight and other factors, as well as the social cost paid by garment workers in far-flung countries who have been stripped of their human rights. It’s worth repeating: language is important, and these two words are often used to describe a wider, more complex conversation.
Words shape the way we think about things; we understand a concept through its opposition. This is why many of us are subconsciously quick to divide the fashion industry into the neat categories of ‘high street’ and ‘high end’ which, incidentally, does more harm than good. The cost of a garment is not always synonymous with its quality; although reports show that the responsibility for disasters like Rana Plaza lies largely with the high street, some of these perpetrators have actually been some of the most proactive brands in terms of making a change.
It goes without saying that if you pay £3 for a T-shirt, somebody somewhere in the world has been either underpaid or poorly treated in order to cut costs. It’s also worth noting, however, that some mid-market and luxury designers are notoriously reluctant to be transparent about their manufacturing, meaning that they could well have outsourced their labour to similar sweatshops and saved a fortune in the process. If they aren’t giving out the information, we don’t know. Nothing is ever perfect, but there are ways to find out which brands are genuinely progressing the conversation and taking sustainability seriously – Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index is just one of many key resources available online.
One of the most vocal companies championing sustainability is Swedish retail giant H&M, whose Conscious collection and other initiatives have been well received. “[It is] an integral part of everything we do here at H&M,” says Catarina Midby, the UK & IE sustainability manager, when asked about the brand’s commitment. Since introducing a code of conduct (which is now its Sustainability Commitment) back in the 1990s, the high street giant has continued to develop its policies and, whenever applicable, acknowledge its mistakes. “One of our biggest environmental initiatives includes our global garment collection scheme – since 2013, all H&M stores globally offer a service whereby customers can hand in unwanted clothes and textiles from any brand in any condition. We will ensure that they are recycled, with 0% going to landfill.”
H&M has been open about its work with factories in developing countries, some of which have been locked in lengthy battles with their governments on the topic of workers’ rights. Earlier this year, the brand – alongside others like Zara, Gap and C&A – pulled out of the annual Dhaka Apparel Summit, sending a clear message that human rights violations and poor working conditions would not be accepted. Bangladesh relies heavily on its garment industry; recent reports show that it accounts for around 70% of all of the country’s visible exports. By applying pressure and threatening to withdraw these contracts, high street stores are using their power to try and change the situation.
Midby describes this ongoing dialogue with factories in developing countries as one of the key ways to make a truly lasting impact. She also highlights that it’s no longer optional: “The greatest change-makers are consumers who, with their growing awareness, are demanding an added value of sustainability in the products and services that they buy. As a brand, to drive change in our industry, we must work together with other brands, institutions and governments. Collaboration is key.”
This same consumer pressure has seen more retail conglomerates lay down sustainability targets and announce their plans to tackle the problem. Arcadia Group (which owns Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins and Topman), M&S and ASOS are just some of the companies publishing statistics and figures online. Some are relatively brief and straightforward, whereas others are impressively comprehensive – ASOS even has a sourcing map which includes its global factories and the gender ratio of its staff. This information requires time and patience to comb through, but it does show that high street brands are now perhaps even more transparent than their luxury counterparts; big fashion houses are often reluctant to release information around their factories, either because they want to keep information private or prevent other companies from outsourcing to the same places.
When brands are transparent, however, the results can be fascinating. A recently published report entitled ‘Dirty Fashion’ praised companies like H&M and Zara for their transparency while also revealing that they were – perhaps unknowingly – sourcing viscose from factories responsible for polluting the ocean. By dumping untreated wastewater, these viscose manufacturers have a devastating impact not only on the environment but on local communities who, the illuminating study found, were unwillingly exposed to toxic waters which were increasing their risk of fatal illness. Research reports like these are emerging frequently, although a willingness by brands to be honest does at least demonstrate a commitment to keep making changes to eradicate these problems.
Selfridges is a unique case study as it combines luxury partners with a high street presence, making it perfectly placed to apply pressure to designer brands. The company is well known for taking its responsibilities seriously and, perhaps more importantly, creating innovative initiatives to make the conversation more engaging. The Material World scheme is just one example – a multi-pronged campaign which both champions emerging designers and presents comprehensive information on the ways in which fashion takes its toll on the planet. There’s also Project Ocean, a partnership with ZSL conceived in order to tackle pollution from waste plastic.
“Sustainability is not negotiable. If every person on the planet shared the consumption habits of the average European in 2017, we would need three Earths to live on,” explains Danielle Vega, Selfridges’ director of sustainability. “We are committed to playing our part in changing those habits and presenting alternatives, which is why our Buying Better, Inspiring Change initiative is there to draw a line in the sand: by 2020, we will ensure that 50% of our brands are better for people and for our planet under the terms of the United Nations' global goals for sustainable development.” Vega also outlines the company’s intention to put pressure on its partners as well as its plans to label items more clearly – a small step towards enabling consumers to make their own informed choices.
The wealth of information available now means that we can start to undo the narrative which tells us we need to spend more on sustainable fashion when, in reality, we may not have the means to do so. There’s an argument around sustainability in the fashion industry which is deeply rooted in class; for those of us working on a tight budget, balancing the desire to invest in well-made pieces and the reality of perhaps needing new clothes for our jobs or our children can present an ethical dilemma.
We need to widen the discussion and highlight the ways in which high street stores are actively making changes; whether due to consumer pressure or a genuine desire, these plans are being pushed through and they’re enabling a more complex conversation. You don’t have to spend more to spend better, although the extreme lower end of the spectrum almost always involves exploitation. That we can spend maybe £5 more in order to shop more ethically, though, is rarely mentioned, nor is the fact that vintage, charity shops and clothing swaps are all perfectly legitimate ways to shop sustainably without breaking the bank. The high street has unwittingly become a scapegoat, inextricably linked to vague, overarching discussions of ‘fast fashion’; now, even some of the culprits are realising that it’s time to change the narrative.