Are Brands’ Sustainable Fashion Lines Corporate Tokenism—Or a Sign of Real Change?

Fast fashion giant H&M has a sustainable clothing line, but some question the retailer’s motives. Sorbis/Shutterstock.com

The first step to real, tangible cultural and social change is a reaction by the mainstream to activism. Or is it? Three years ago, powerhouse retailer H&M launched its first sustainable line, the “Conscious Collection” as part of a longer-term plan to implement sustainable production strategies in its traditionally disposable clothing ranges. This year, British brand Topshop also released its first permanent sustainable line in conjunction with Reclaim To Wear (which has been stocked at Topshop since 2011 and has had various collaborations with Topshop in that time), called “Reclaim Topshop,” using only recycled materials to create the niche collection. These moves by big brands to embrace ethical fashion are reactionary and based on the globalization of responsibility, which has come about in a social media era where hashtag activism can prove to be unifying.

For instance, on Fashion Revolution Day, held to mark the anniversary of the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, social media users took up the hashtag #whomademyclothes to confront labels. The movement received 6.6m Google hits in its first year (2014). And with growing support from celebrities like Livia Firth and Christy Turlington, as well as the UK parliament (which hosted Fashion Revolution Day discussion panels) and brands like Esprit, M&S and G-Star Raw capitulating and responding to the hashtag, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before more brands are forced into transparency, and possibly even changing their practices, by consumer activism.

And they should react. These retailers cater to the hordes of consumers who have opted out of spending a month’s rent on seasonally transient trend pieces but who still value product quality. But are the efforts by H&M and Topshop sincere, or are they tokenism on the part of big brands designed to keep them in the good graces of their customers while continuing to churn out low-cost products at the expense of the environment?

We reached out to Topshop to find out more about their sustainability plans but received no response. H&M forwarded a standard press release, which pledged that H&M would, “Provide fashion for conscious customers; Choose and reward responsible partners; Be ethical; Be climate smart; Reduce, reuse, recycle; Use natural resources responsibly; Strengthen communities.” I was then directed to the site’s vast archive of sustainability reports and information on the brand’s practices.

Violette Snow, the founder of HESSIAN Magazine, which promotes sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism, says that tokenism can be a sign of change beginning. “[I]t shows that companies know that they need to be perceived as making a difference in order to get a leg up in their market.”

However, she is skeptical about the actual impact brands like Topshop are having on sustainability in the fashion industry.

“To be honest, it’s a complete nightmare to find out the reality of what brands such as Topshop [and] Zara…are actually achieving. While I will always support brands making a difference, they are setting a lot of small goals that won’t see results for a long time,” she says.

Their Corporate Social Responsibility reporting, she argues, is “full of meaningless statistics” that don’t show the true picture.

“Topshop’s parent company, Arcadia Group, runs a host of other labels including Miss Selfridge, but reading their single page report on environmental impact, it’s basically just fluff,” Snow says. “Sure, put out your conscious collections and get people feeling good about themselves, but don’t let them think it’s going to change the world.”

“Looking at H&M is a little more complex,” she continues, “they actually seem to do a lot. You can log onto their website and find out, in incredible detail, exactly what they are working on. In terms of innovation, improving their supply chain and production, it really seems like they are streets ahead of Topshop and Zara. H&M’s transparent reporting means you can quantify and understand their achievements a little better too.”

Kate Black, founder and editor-in-chief of Magnifeco.com, which describes itself as the digital source for eco-fashion and sustainable living, says major brands have done some good in the fashion industry.

“Big brands have the money to support sustainable initiatives; for example H&M is consistently one of the top buyers of organic cotton and Topshop has collaborated on collections made from upcycled materials. Their success allows them the financial flexibility to support important initiatives,” she says.

“The bigger question is ‘Are [their] business models, and their rates of production, sustainable for the planet?’ At 90 billion new pieces produced per year (most from virgin resources), I’m not so sure.”

In reality, the sustainable capsule collections put out by big brands come off looking like cynical marketing ploys, given the disproportionately large mass of clothing being still being produced using unsustainable methods.

And Snow has similar reservations about these big brands’ attempts at sustainability.

“Despite all this—despite the collaborations, the recycled textiles and ethical claims—they are still fast fashion. Fast fashion is about consumption; want more, use more, buy more.

In a market where instant gratification rules, and where consumption is based on having the next big thing, it doesn’t bode well for meaningful change in mainstream fashion.

Yet there is mounting pressure from the consumer. Black points to a 2012 report on sustainability that found that two-thirds of surveyed consumers in six countries (Brazil, China, India, Germany, the UK and the US), believe that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations” and they feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

However, the report also found there were barriers to consumers acting on these beliefs, chief among them being price. “Realistically, price is the drive factor to the majority right now,” says Snow, “but I believe we are slowly seeing a shift toward quality and conscious thinking. It’s something people are thinking of, but in many cases feel unable to make a difference as price is still tough barrier. As the demand increases, it is up to businesses and consumers to engage with sustainability as a normal practice, not an alternative.”

Doing away with trend-based fashion could very well be the first step for retailers when it comes to going green. For instance, the instantaneous copies of dresses from high fashion runways following fashion weeks might have to become a thing of the past, so that fashion can start to shift its focus from seasonally attractive to longevity.

“Ethical designers are so incredibly innovative,” says Black. “The modular creations from NFP Studios have elevated knitwear to a multi-wear item. Plus, timeless, seasonless collections are becoming more common as designers shy away from the traditional fashion calendar. If fast fashion is pushing towards ‘more’ consumption, ethical designers are providing a wonderful antidote through innovation and defying convention.”

There’s also responsibility on a micro-level. Yes, that’s me and you.

“You can start simply by learning the right way to wash your clothing, and wash it less. Buy breathable fabrics that need less cleaning such as bamboo, linen or lyocell. Think before you buy. Choose local manufacturing where possible—it might cost a little more but it supports your local industry and encourages onshore production which is great for your economy and reduces carbon mileage,” advises Snow.

Change and demand will go hand in hand, says Snow, who adds that we have a communal responsibility—from the individual to corporations and the media—to protect the environment by revolutionizing the fashion industry.

“Ask your retailers the hard questions,” she says, “and if the staff don’t know, ask them to find out. Creating the demand for transparency might not seem like a big deal but how can we choose a better garment if we aren’t being told the whole story?”