Nikita Mishra
Oct 13, 2022

Sustainable labels: How can fast fashion emerge from an ethical mess?

With more brands slapping on eco-friendly promises that may, or may not be true, can sustainable marketing be a bigger part of the solution and less of the problem?

Sustainable labels: How can fast fashion emerge from an ethical mess?

Fast fashion is being called out for empty promises, profiteering off consumer appetite for sustainable choices and for poor and misleading communications around “green” efforts. To set that in context, the fashion industry emits the same amount of greenhouse gases per year as the entire economies of France, Germany and UK combined as nearly 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions can be pinned on the sector. Beyond this, it’s the second largest consumer of the global water supply, and a huge contributor to microplastics in our oceans.

The environmental impact of one’s sartorial choices is a hot-button consumer topic. To capitalise on this changing mindset, big brands are clambering to announce more sustainable lines every season in what looks like a win-win for profits as well as the environment. But are these marketing claims authentic or our brands comfortable in practicing the age-old tactic of hoodwinking buyers through greenwashing? At last, there is legal scrutiny.

The great greenwash undress

Consider a recent slew of events: Swedish fast fashion giant H&M is facing a class-action suit in a New York Federal court for egregiously capitalising on consumer climate concerns with misleading and outright deceptive environmental scorecards in its clothing line. Interestingly, the lawsuit, pinned on a Quartz investigation, was filed by a marketing student, Chelsea Commodore, who alleged she had overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as 'conscious' that really … just wasn’t. Investigations reveal that items from the brand’s Conscious Collection were advertised as using less water to manufacture when they actually use more. H&M claims the blatant discrepancy was the result of technical issues.

Screengrab from H&M's website explaining the climate impact of their clothing. Only 11 items show any eco reduction. (Photo: Quartz investigation)

Other retailers like Asos, Decathlon, and Boohoo are all caught in similar ethical jumbles and currently under multiple investigations by regulators in UK, US and Norway for their outlandish sustainability claims.

Though Asia is lagging in legal action on marketing tactics of greenwashing, the global crackdown indicates a collective momentum to redefine how the industry markets its sustainability efforts.

“Asos, H&M, Decathlon are just a few hurtful examples. They are the ones who are caught, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone is doing it at the risk of their reputation and litigation,” says Vietnam-based Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, the vice president of culture and brand, ASEAN at digital marketing and PR agency Vero.

Nguyen-Masse talks from experience. He began his career as a buyer in the fashion industry for popular labels and ran a retail start-up before dipping his toes in the world of communications. “It is not the case of a single black sheep. Greenwashing in fast fashion is rampant and it will keep happening till a strict law is brought about. It’s like what happened with nutritional labels. Companies claimed whatever they wanted till strict food label laws were implemented,” he says.

Vu-Quan Nguyen-Masse, vice president of culture and brand ASEAN, Vero

Currently, there is no regulatory body in the fashion industry, globally or regionally or locally, which ensures that marketing materials don’t mislead the public. Most countries have an advertising watchdog, code of ethics and best practices but these are at best, guidelines, which are not binding by law.

Cherry-picking surface-level efforts

Following an investigation from Dutch authorities, H&M has removed the 'Conscious' and 'Conscious Choice' labels from its stores and website and has agreed to provide donations of €400,000 to sustainable causes to compensate for their use of unclear and insufficiently substantiated sustainability claims. But does this lawsuit represent a watershed moment for fashion? Can sustainable marketing as a selling tactic go extinct after such public scandals?

“Maybe it should,” opines Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability APAC and MEA at the MSL Group. “It is imperative that sustainable marketing and communications be based on facts and nothing but the facts. Brands cannot put labels like ‘eco’ and ‘conscious’ without honestly and transparently explaining their environmental benefits. Companies should stop with tokenism and seeing sustainability as an easy pass,” she says.

Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability, MSL APAC, and MEA

Progress needs to start somewhere, and Goulding says talking marketing and advertising small green efforts is not lip service. It’s only fair for firms to talk about “the journey to sustainability efforts”, she says, but that does not imply creating one small eco collection and cherry-picking environmental principles. That is akin to putting a bandage on a broken leg.

A classic example: Kourtney Kardashian released two capsule lines for fast fashion brand Boohoo during the recent New York Fashion week. Items in this 45-piece collection are made from shiny recycled fibres and aimed at increasing the lifespan of garments. But this only denotes a tiny fraction of the 40,000-odd styles that shed harmful microplastics and are sold on the website every year. Given that the cheapest item of clothing in Kardashian’s collection is marked at $5, fair pay to supply chain workers is also questionable.

“Companies creating an add-on sustainability agenda while allowing the overall business model to stay the same are indulging in surface-level efforts. If you rely on exploitative and unsustainable supply chain issues, a new ‘eco’ collection or two will not tackle the larger issue of waste and climate change,” argues Charu Srivastava chair of PRCA APAC Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. 

Charu Srivastava, chair PRCA, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee

When H&M introduced the ‘Conscious Collection’ in 2019, the Swedish giant launched a leather-like Pinatex material. It is plant-based, derived from orange peels, pineapple leaves and algae. Sounds eco-friendly but actually the material has plastic and petroleum-based agents. Not only does it not qualify as alternative clothing, but it also becomes non-biodegradable and offsets any probable positive environment impact of utilising fruit fibres.

“Don’t be fooled by these marketing tactics. The biggest issue is that fast fashion is trend-driven and not made to last. As a consumer, there is a need to stop and wonder how much wear you get out of your clothes before it ends up in landfill?” asks Sarah Garner, sustainability advocate, former global planning manager at LVMH and currently the owner of Retykle, a luxury resale platform for children’s clothing.

Sustainable fast fashion: A myth?

Two decades ago, Zara was revolutionary for producing hundreds of new items a week; these days, Asos adds as many as 7,000. The H&M group alone manufactures an estimated three billion articles of clothing every year.

The entire fashion industry has as many as 52 micro-seasons, that’s one new trend per week. In 2019, Kim Kardashian called out fast fashion for ripping off her custom-designed dress before she could actually wear it. Less than three hours after the reality star displayed pictures of the gold dress from her fitting, UK based affordable brand Missguided posted an exact copy of the gilded frock modelled on a Kardashian-lookalike with the caption, "The devil works hard but Missguided works harder? @kimkardashian you've only got a few days before this drops online."

Sarah Garner, sustainability advocate and owner, Retykle

“The magnitude of scale and swiftness, with which clothes are made, rejected and possibly reproduced via new trends leads to enormous textile waste. The whole ethos is to be runway copycats. The target is to produce the cheapest and earliest replica of luxury; but nothing in fashion is cheap – if it doesn’t hurt the wallet, it hurts the planet,” says Garner.

But are consumers really bothered about the environmental impact of their Friday night outfit or happily pointing fingers at brands for not doing their bit? Turns out, that’s a very complicated question to answer. Recently, Nestle CEO Mark Schneider speaking at an event by investment firm Lombard Odier, stirred the pot. He pushed back on corporate CSR for plastic pollution saying the entire responsibility “should not be thrown in the lap of corporations.”

Schneider added: “To simply point at one actor in the system and say, ‘Thou shalt solve the problem’ will not get us very far.”

While Nestle consistently ranks among the top plastic polluters in brand audits globally, along with Coca-Cola, and Unilever, it sparks an important debate. While the very ethos of CSR germinated from the idea that the company should positively impact the community it operates is, is cleaning up a one-way street and not the obligation of the consumer?

As a consumer, if you buy a $5 t-shirt, how conscious or ethical do you think your choice can be?

“For a large business which has the means to influence change, that is frivolous messaging. CSR cannot be separate from the company’s core business. As for the consumer, if there is a choice, people will opt for a cheaper option,” says Srivastava.

“A systemic change is needed but if resourceful businesses will not take the lead to catalyse change, then who will? There has to be urgency, accountability, responsibility,” maintains Nguyen-Masse.

Goulding blames the toxic trend of fast fashion for the current problem. “The consumer does absolutely have a role to play. Supply chain transformation to sustainable fashion is not an overnight process and till that happens the consumer needs to remember that a big part of sustainability is not just wearing natural fabric but also keeping what you have for longer.” 

Fashion, but make it circular

For the industry, keeping what you have for longer translates to embracing first hand, second-hand, third-hand and fourth-hand customers.

During the World Recycling Week in October, H&M aims to collect and recycle over 1,000 tonnes of used clothing. Initiatives like this are good press but in reality, they don’t fix the overproduction dilemma. Zara, for example, releases new designs every two weeks to keep customers hooked.

“The fashion industry must change its mindset to produce less and better clothes. Slow fashion is the way forward and a circular economy should be implemented where waste is not produced in the first place,” says Nguyen-Masse.

H&M has a garment collection and recycling service in its stores since 2013. But less than 1% of the collected clothes can be recycled. A further 12% can be “downcycled” into items, such as insulation material, mattress filling and cloths. Given that a staggering 100 billion items of clothing are produced globally every year, it’s a no-brainer that recycling or upcycling alone won’t solve the industry’s problems.

In September 2020, Asos launched its first 29-piece circular fashion collection with the intention to challenge the “misconception that circular and sustainable clothing can’t be fashionable.” Baggy jeans, lilac power suits, retro denim jackets, the collection looked fashionable but was it circular?

Keeping standard design parameters for circular fashion in place, Asos came up with its own framework of eight principles which include zero-waste design, recycled input, minimised waste and disassembly. According to Asos, each item in the collection met at least two of the eight principles from their framework, but the company had absolutely no plans of allowing customers to return the garments at the end of their life cycle for repurposing or recycling.

Now that is the problem.

Circular economy works on the very foundation of designing out of waste, of regenerating natural resources and not perpetually exploiting them for virgin use. So, if Asos doesn’t close the loop of its symbolic circular collection, where do these disassembled clothes go? Likely the landfill where the other tonnes of used clothing end up?

“Well, resale is not currently profitable or convenient for companies to do it on a large-scale and that’s why circular economy is tough to adopt. But it will be profitable and convenient when blockchain in fashion is a reality,” quips Garner of Retykle.

Can blockchain put an end to fashion’s greenwashing problem?

This intangible, disruptive technology can truly allow the industry to become more transparent. Garner explains the intricacies: “The blockchain stores details in an absolute way, and consumers can see the behind-the-scenes story of the fabric without eroding trust as product changes hands. Brands can extend this information to customers in whatever format they choose—trackable RFID chip or a QR code.”

One aspect of closing the circularity loop at the moment, which ASOS and several other players face is to oversee what happens once a product is sold. Now that makes resale a challenge and abandonment of responsibility rampant. That’s where blockchain can be a gamechanger, says Garner. From farm to consumer, cotton to cloth, each step which is now recorded manually, can be digitally coded so the consumer can trace the production chain and have authentic information about purchase history.

Each step in the production process of fashion's first piece of clothing sold via blockchain was registered and tracked on the Provenance app. Photo: Provenance 

The first fashion piece to be tracked via blockchain was a jumper by Danish designer Martine Jarlgaard in 2017. A collaboration between Provenance, A Transparent Company, and London College of Fashion’s innovation agency facilitated each step of the process to be registered and tracked via Provenance’s app. From alpaca shearing stage at the British Alpaca Fashion farm to spinning at Two Rivers Mill, knitting at Knitster LDN and finally to be used as a fabric at Martine Jarlgaard London–the unique code on the jumper shines a light on its history in detail – even which alpacas were used for raw material.

How can transparency accelerate the transition to net zero?

“Transparency and sustainability are two sides of the same coin,” says Goulding.

“Companies cannot stop at merely announcing their sustainability goals 20, 30 years into the future. There has to be a roadmap and accountability for that roadmap. Once there is transparency, there will automatically be more authenticity in things like materials used and other supply chain issues,” she says.

That would be ideal. But how eager will big companies, like H&M and Zara, with sprawling supply chains in faraway countries, often tainted with shadowy allegations of human rights be in adopting a model which puts transparency and control in the hands of the user? Only time will tell.  

Campaign Asia

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