The environmental and ethical issues surrounding fast fashion are no secret, and have only escalated in recent years. The world now consumes in excess of 100 billion pieces of clothing a year, according to a report by McKinsey. As a whole, the industry is responsible for 92 million tons of waste dumped in landfills every year. Meanwhile, a 2017 report found 35 per cent of microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles—much of which is produced by fast fashion brands.
Retailers are now starting to increase their efforts to address the problems. Last week, Zara owner Inditex announced a new series of sustainability initiatives, including the goal for 100 per cent of its cotton, linen and polyester to be sustainable by 2025. “Sustainability is a never-ending task in which everyone here at Inditex is involved,” Pablo Isla, the company’s executive chairman, said of the announcement. “We aspire to play a transformational role in the industry.”
H&M is another brand that’s working towards a more sustainable model. “The fashion industry cannot continue to operate in the way it does currently; our planet doesn’t have the resources,” Giorgina Waltier, sustainability manager for H&M in the UK and Ireland, tells Vogue. The retailer, along with brands including Uniqlo, Mango and Asos, has been growing its eco-conscious collection in recent years, as well as launching a wave of green initiatives.
Brands taking action is no doubt a positive step forward. “Sustainability is a journey,” says Amina Razvi, the new executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “Assessing where you are and making ambitious commitments to improve impacts is the right place to start.”
But how—if at all possible—can fast fashion reduce its impact on the environment? “The key issue is the lack of consensus of what is meant by ‘sustainable’ and particularly ‘sustainable fabrics’,” comments Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age. It’s essential that retailers aren’t guilty of so-called green-washing. “It’s important to see brands take action, but this should be meaningful and well informed,” she adds. “It is difficult to reconcile reducing environmental impact with a business model built on delivering increasing volumes of products at ever-cheaper prices.”
Vogue takes a look at some of the key environmental commitments made by five fast fashion retailers—and decodes what they really mean.
Commitment: 100 per cent of cotton, linen and polyester to be sustainable by 2025, and 100 per cent of viscose by 2023.
What does it mean? Inditex (which also owns Bershka and Pull&Bear) says all cotton will be organic, recycled or produced in line with the Better Cotton Initiative, a non-profit that works with farmers to adopt more socially and environmentally sustainable practices. The retailer has pledged that 100 per cent of its polyester will be recycled.
What impact will it have? 90 per cent of Inditex’s fabrics are made up of cotton, linen, polyester and viscose, so more careful sourcing of these materials will help the company reduce its environmental impact. Recycled polyester, for example, uses less energy than the virgin material, and makes use of plastic that would otherwise end up in landfill. However, the company has not defined exactly what it means by “sustainable” when it comes to viscose or linen.
Commitment: 100 per cent of Zara stores to be eco-efficient by the end of 2019.
What does it mean? The retailer’s “eco” stores use at least 20 per cent less electricity and 40 per cent less water than its conventional stores. So far, 86 per cent of its stores meets this standard. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of energy used by the company across its stores, logistic centres and offices will be renewable by 2025.
What impact will it have? Lowering energy and water consumption in its stores is one step that Zara is taking to reduce its use of natural resources; the brand is also working with suppliers to assess its water and energy efficiency as part of its Green To Wear classification. However, it has not set a specific target to reduce carbon emissions or water consumption across its supply chain, which would be a more ambitious commitment for the company to make.
Commitment: 100 per cent of materials and products to be recycled or sustainably sourced by 2030.
What does it mean? This goal is part of the H&M Group’s (which also includes Arket, & Other Stories and Cos) aim to become 100 per cent circular—meaning a system in which all products can be reused or fully decomposed. Currently, 57 per cent of its materials are recycled or sustainably sourced in line with industry benchmarks like the Material Sustainability Index (MSI).
What impact will it have? H&M’s move towards circularity is key in order to disrupt the current business model, which is based predominantly on consuming more and more resources. While creating 100 per cent of its products with recycled or sustainable materials is a positive step, the company is still a way off from creating a fully circular system.
Commitment: To become climate positive—have an overall positive effect on the planet—by 2040.
What does it mean? The company is aiming to offset carbon, as well as cut greenhouse emissions, from its own operations by 40 per cent. It has also set a target to use 100 per cent renewable energy.
What impact will it have? Reducing carbon emissions is key if the fashion industry wants to help combat climate change. H&M’s commitment goes beyond the UN’s 2018 Fashion Industry Charter of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Commitment: Zero emissions of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
What does it mean? Fast Retailing—the owner of Uniqlo—has committed to completely eliminate hazardous chemicals throughout its supply chain. The group discloses a list of banned chemicals on its website.
What impact will it have? Uniqlo’s commitment is in line with Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign, which calls for brands to tackle water pollution caused by chemical waste. Up to 20 per cent of industrial water pollution is from textile dyeing and treatment, according to the World Bank.
Commitment: Reduce the use of single-use plastic by 85 per cent by the end of 2020.
What does it mean? Uniqlo will switch from plastic bags to paper bags in 12 countries from September and cut out plastic packaging on certain items. This will help eliminate around 7,800 tons of plastic a year. The benefit of banning plastic bags has already been seen on a national level in countries such as Kenya and Rwanda.
What impact will it have? Eliminating the use of all plastic bags is a simple but effective way for retailers to cut back on single-use plastic. Uniqlo will also be selling eco-friendly reusable bags as part of the move.
Commitment: Increase the use of sustainable fibres and processes throughout all its lines.
What does it mean? Mango says the number of its garments that are produced sustainably has doubled from 2017 to 2018. The brand has set new internal objectives to continue the uptake of recycled fibres and sustainable cellulose fibres, but has not made these targets public.
What impact will it have? Moving towards more eco-friendly fabrics and production methods is undoubtedly a positive step. Lyocell is an example of a sustainable cellulose fibre; it is made using wood pulp and requires less energy than cotton. However, it will be hard to measure how much impact this commitment from Mango will have without specific targets being made publicly available.
Commitment: 50 per cent of cotton to be sourced sustainably by 2022.
What does it mean? Like Zara, Mango has signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative in a bid to meet this target. The goal is part of the brand’s Take Action 2020 programme, which aims to address the company’s social and environmental impact.
What impact will it have? Mango’s target of 50 per cent sustainably sourced cotton by 2022 falls behind commitments made by other retailers. There has also been debate on how sustainable the cotton grown in line with the Better Cotton Initiative actually is. A 2018 Changing Markets Foundation report criticised its tolerance of pesticides and genetically modified crops. The Better Cotton Initiative also says it encourages techniques that can “significantly reduce” the amount of water needed to produce 1kg of cotton—estimated to be between 10,000 to 20,000 litres—but has not given a precise figure on how much would still be required.
Commitment: Train design and product teams about circular design by 2020, and launch recycling programmes in UK and Germany.
What does it mean? Asos has signed up to these goals as part of the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 commitment, which focuses on moving brands to a more circular system. The retailer has partnered with London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion to create a bespoke course for its designers.
What impact will it have? The commitments made by Asos show that it is looking to a more circular—and therefore more sustainable—business model. However, there is a long way to go before any fast-fashion retailers are likely to achieve full circularity.
Commitment: Reduce carbon intensity every year until 2020.
What does it mean? The retailer is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions in four key areas: buildings, business travel, packaging, transportation of goods—the last of which makes up more than 90 per cent of its carbon footprint when it comes to business operations.
What impact will it have? The latest report from Asos shows the company has reduced emissions by 28 per cent year on year. As part of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, the retailer has committed to reducing the carbon footprint of its own Asos brands by 15 per cent by 2020. This suggests the retailer has some way to go if it is to achieve the UN’s aim of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.