When I started to show interest in sustainable fashion, I started to doubt everything. The (sustainable) fashion industry is so complex due to phenomena such as subcontracting, fake labels and marketing purposes. One of my first encounters with sustainable fashion was with sustainable collections of big fashion brands, such as H&M’s Conscious Collection, followed by Zara’s Join Life Collection. But could I ‘trust’ those collections? Now, a couple of months later, I see and hear other people struggle with this question too. Time to clear things up!
Let’s start on a very positive note: I think it is amazing that the big chains are offering sustainable wear. It is a sign that the market is demanding sustainable wear, so we are really moving forward and all people, as individuals, have achieved this. Your act matters!
So what about the conscious collection of H&M for example? Each piece is made from recycled and/or organic materials, and for the 2017 collection a men’s and kids collection is also designed. Currently, including the Conscious Collection, across their entire offering, 26% is made from sustainable materials, and H&M is planning to upgrade this to 100% by 2020. Sounds great! With its 26%, H&M is the current largest buyer of organic cotton and Tencel, and even the smallest changes for such a large company can make a change.
Zara, on the other hand, is less clear about what the Join Life collection entails. They state the collection is a combination of upcycled materials with more sustainable raw materials. Items still go for Zara like prices, in sale you can get a shirt for less than €10. Such little information and low prices seem suspicious to me. In both cases the chains reach the mainstream and show that organic clothing is not boring at all. In fact, it can be super chic, trendy and fashionable.
Now the tricky part. First, you might have come across articles attacking fast fashion chains such as Zara and H&M about their labour conditions. For the sustainable collections, it is not much different. Both chains proclaim not to own any factories or do regular checks at the producing factories. However, as chains demand such low production prices, those ‘checked’ and ‘approved’ factories cannot produce the garments for the paid price. Therefore, the contracted factories outsource the production to factories producing the clothes for even less money. This phenomenon is called ‘subcontracting’. At such places, child labour, underpayment and poor working conditions is not uncommon. Therefore, unfortunately, good working conditions cannot be guaranteed for the sustainable collections.
Secondly, never ever can fast fashion be conscious. Fast fashion encourages customers to buy more, constantly. The Times revealed some shocking numbers: last year in Britain, a million tonnes of clothes were discarded. If that is not shocking enough, fewer than 10% of the clothing had ended its life cycle. This is mainly caused by cheap fast fashion that is pushing for 52 collections per year, that makes it easy to dump last week’s fashion. But also by excess clothing produced by fast fashion that has not been sold.
Alongside the (light) green path H&M and other chains want to follow, H&M also aims to expand their business 10-15% per year. In 2015 there were already 3,924 stores globally (only at which 160 offer the Conscious Collection), producing about 600.000.000 garments per year. It is said that Zara’s owner company ‘Inditex’ produces even higher volumes. As long as the business model of a fashion store stays this way, even the ‘green choice’ is not sustainable. As Marc Bain of Quartz points out ‘’a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill’’.
‘’A landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill’’.
So, can you buy from the sustainable collections guilt free? That is up to you, but just don’t fall for promising words easily. And yes, if you have to choose between the regular collection and the green collection, the choice should be obvious. From my perspective, I think it is great that fashion chains are making an effort to change, even if it is only for marketing purposes, or whatever reason. Their (small) steps can cause big leaps towards a cleaner industry. Moreover, H&M (and Zara, but I am still a little bit suspicious) is making those steps, whereas other chains, such as Primark and Forever21 are far behind.
Lastly, I am going to tell you what we always tell you: search for long lasting items, to wear for many years to come. If that happens to be an item from the Conscious Collection, then there is nothing wrong with that. We also suggest to shop slow fashion, have a look at our recommendations for shoes, lingerie, sunglasses or other fair brands.