SUSTAINABILITY VS ETHICS – WHAT CONSTITUTES A ‘SUSTAINABLE BRAND’?

Recently, Game of Thrones actor Maisie Williams announced her partnership with highstreet clothing brand H&M, taking on a role as their ‘sustainability ambassador’. The actor announced on social media that she would join the brand to help in its quest to use more sustainable materials by 2030.

The move has been criticised by many as yet another example of greenwashing, conveying misleading information about the brand’s sustainability credentials. As a leading high-street fast-fashion company H&M Group has contributed significantly to the issues of fast fashion in the UK and worldwide over the years. The UK website currently has 7209 items of women’s clothing, with volume of styles being a key indicator of fast-fashion brands. H&M Group has over 2000 factories worldwide producing billions of garments a year, and has previously been called out for burning unsold stock, to the extent that power plant Vasteras could become temporarily fossil-fuel free, purely by burning H&M clothing. In 2019 it had an inventory of $4bn (£2.91bn) unsold clothes, each requiring huge amounts of resources and labour to create, but never being sold or worn.

Let’s talk about sustainability. As a brand, H&M could be seen as leading the way in moving to a more sustainable business model, at least in terms of fast fashion. Surprisingly, the group received 73 out of 100 points in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, although of course, being transparent about your policies and practises doesn’t say anything about how good they actually are. H&M Group has committed to using 30% recycled materials and reducing emissions by 20% by 2025. The brand offers £5 vouchers for customers bringing in clothes for recycling (which could more cynically be seen as a clever tool to get higher footfall and increase spending on new items in store), and was one of the first high-street brands to launch a ‘conscious collection’. This does beg the question that if 5% of their collection is ‘conscious’ or ‘sustainable’, what does that make the remaining 95%?

Superficially, H&M seems to be saying all the right things, and making all the right moves, albeit slowly. If you’re not looking too deep, it can be tempting to believe that fast-fashion brands making efforts to improve their green credentials are a viable solution to ‘conscious consumerism’. You can have your new dress and wear it.

Look a little deeper, however, and cracks begin to show. Many of the claims H&M (and other fast-fashion brands) make are not only unsubstantiated, but impossible to ever verify. ‘Eco-friendly’, ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’ really mean very little, if anything.  The unreliability of their sustainability claims is evidenced by the below statement by their current CEO (previous Head of Sustainability) Helena Helmersson about the sustainability and ethical guarantees the company offers:

“I don’t think guarantee is the right word…A lot of people ask for guarantees: ‘Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?’
Of course we cannot when we’re such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions”.

And therein lies the issue. While H&M and other high-street fashion brands move towards materials that have less environmental impact, their entire business model (selling high volumes of clothes cheaply) means they cannot possibly guarantee that they’re having any any less of a negative impact at all. They don’t even know what is happening in their factories. Without addressing the entire fast fashion business model, it is dubious that high-street brands such as H&M could ever be sustainable.

Alongside this, there is the issue of ethics. Following the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, H&M joined the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord to address health and safety issues in factories. H&M promised to pay their workers a living wage by 2018, a target which they spectacularly failed to meet, and have made no notable efforts to improve wages since. With much of their clothing selling for under £10, it is impossible for workers to be being paid wages that allow them to live a decent life. The issue becomes all the more stark when considering the amount celebrity endorsers, such as Maisie Williams, get paid to be the face of a brand such as H&M. When celebrities are getting paid in the millions for promoting a ‘sustainable range’ in lieu of garment workers getting paid fair wages, it’s hard to consider the range sustainable at all. As a large brand, H&M holds clout with its 2000+ factories. Insisting on living wage would send an important message to the industry and raise the standard for all, but instead, these brands are all too happy to channel these funds into increased marketing to sell yet more clothing, and the cycle continues.

So… can a brand be sustainable without being ethical?

When you consider the ethics of making sustainability claims that cannot ever be substantiated, many would argue that sustainability and ethics go hand in hand. Misleading well-intentioned customers in an effort to sell more clothes is anything but ethical. 

Sustainability and ethics are also intrinsically linked when looking at those most affected by climate change. Companies doing the most damage (such as fast-fashion brands) are not only outsourcing labour to the Global South, but also outsourcing damage. Toxic dyes, polluted waterways, horrendous farming conditions all impact the workers as well as the environment, so it is impossible to uncouple the two elements of a clothing brand. While profits, shareholders and celebrity endorsers are continually placed ahead of suppliers, factory workers and the environment, no fast fashion brand can ever be deemed truly sustainable. We need system change, not fabric change. It is impossible to separate the dubious ethics and unthinkable volume of clothes intrinsic to the fast-fashion business model, from the more ‘environmentally friendly’ fabric choices in their ‘conscious collections’. Sustainability and ethics go hand in hand. Leave one behind, and you’re left with a green façade of sustainability, ready to be broken down once fashion changes.