How Sustainable and Ethical are Your Favourite High Street Shops Really?
Day by day, UK consumers are questioning the practices of popular high street fashion brands due to their negative environmental and social impact. It's time to take a closer look at the changes many of the big names have been making in the past few years. Are they enough?
When you stroll into a high street fashion shop, ‘green’ interior design is not uncommon. Green or earthy colours are abound, indoor plants thrive, lighting is dimmed to look low energy, brown labels on t-shirts have words like ‘conscious’ and ‘recycled’ printed on them. The list goes on.
In the midst of a climate emergency, it makes sense that many brands want to steer the sourcing and production of clothes in a more eco-friendly direction - especially with growing consumer awareness about the impact of fast fashion on the environment.
So, since consumer eco-anxiety is more rampant than ever, what fashion companies are making drastic changes to minimise damage. And are they doing enough?
For this article I looked into the sustainable and ethical goals of five popular high street brands. To maintain a well-rounded opinion, I crossed checked via popular brand ranking websites such as Good On You and The Good Shopping Guide. These websites calculate a brand’s sustainable score based upon their current practises in both operations and the supply chain.
H&M is celebrated by shoppers for delivering quality clothing at an affordable price. However, do they deliver a sustainable and ethical experience too?
Under: The H&M Group. Also owns brands like COS and Monki.
Interesting attributes: Part of the better cotton initiative. Have an in-store service where you can donate old clothes. In partnership with WWF to assess water consumption and pollution in the fashion industry.
In 2019 H&M provided online shoppers with more transparency. On each product page they added additional information: where the fabric was sourced, what country a garment came from, what factory it was made in, and how many workers were in that specific factory. Though this is a good start, it only gives us snippets of information. It doesn't disclose work environments or whether the workers are getting adequate pay and humane work hours.
The first ever H&M Conscious Collection was launched in 2010. According to their official website, garments in this range must be made from sustainable materials. This could include organic cotton or recycled polyester. However, there is still much to be done. The Norwegian conscious collection was accused of greenwashing* last year due to ambiguity over how much sustainable material was used. As far as we know, one garment might use a large percentage of sustainable materials, whilst others might use much less.
*To Greenwash = to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. (Cambridge Dictionary).
Marks & Spencer.
Marks & Spencer is a classic company known for timeless and high quality pieces. What sustainable changes are they aiming for?
Under: Marks & Spencer Group plc. Has own store brands like Per Una and Autograph.
Interesting Attributes: Part of the better cotton initiative. Have an in-store service where you can donate old clothes.
Marks & Spencer are continuing with their ambitious Plan A business plan that launched back in 2007. Mike Barry, the previous CEO of sustainability who created the plan, stepped down in 2019. This did not stop the brand from extending their plans into 2025 and beyond with new targets.
Plan A tackles five main categories: climate change, resources, health, fair partnership, and waste. To get an idea about the scope of their ambitions, one of their targets involves reducing 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from M&S operations worldwide. This target does not, however, include production in supply chains. Companies need to be clearer when it comes to external sources of production.
Zara is a hotspot for the trendiest pieces on the market. Many shoppers fawn over their designs, especially on the internet with social media influencers galore. Is the brand working equally as hard on designing sustainable and ethical pieces?
Under: Inditex - A huge Spanish retailer with brands like Pull&Bear, Bershka, and Massimo Dutti under their belt.
Interesting Attributes: Part of the better cotton initiative. Have an in-store service where you can donate old clothes. Inditex named most sustainable retailer by Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 3 consecutive years.
Pablo Isla, the CEO of Inditex, released a sustainability pledge in April 2019. It covered minimising plastic packaging on products, increasing the use of sustainable cotton and eco-friendly fibres, and protecting ancient forests by using alternatives like TENCEL™.
But, it is probable that these changes will have little difference if Zara continue to produce clothing at such a huge turnover rate. Their efforts will go to waste if they keep promoting a quick-fire consumption of the latest trends.
In a Baptist World Aid ethical fashion report from 2019, Zara scored an A rank for their policies regarding the human rights of factory workers. You can download the free report here.
On the YouGov website, Next is currently the 2nd most popular clothing brand in the UK. They’re known for being trustworthy, good value, and good quality. What movements are they making to be kinder to the planet and other living beings?
Under: Next plc.
Interesting Attributes: Part of ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme to reduce pollution from apparel and footwear industries. Partnered with WWF to reduce pollution from leather tanneries. Still uses leather in products.
2018 was the year Next launched their Responsible Sourcing Strategy for 2025. A huge feature of this strategy was to improve transparency about how and where Next source their materials. On their brand website, a PDF with their corporate responsibility report from January 2019 featured their "ambition to source 100% of main raw materials through known, responsible or certified routes by 2025," and to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030.
I cannot deny that I find much of their information vague. For instance, they do not explain how they'll carefully manage water consumption in their tanneries, mills, and laundries.
Next's relationship with their supply chain is impressive. Out of all of the factories they work with, 98% of them were audited in 2018 to ensure that ethical standards were adhered to. They're also connected to the Ethical Trading Initiative that aims to improve the working standards for those who make consumer goods worldwide.
New Look’s range of clothing has a distinctly youthful quality. It’s a firm favourite with teens and young adults, creating trendy pieces and selling them at an affordable price. Let’s see if their efforts towards sustainability holds up.
Under: Brait SE - Described as an ‘investment holding company.’ They’ve also invested in Virgin Active and Iceland.
Interesting Attributes: Part of the better cotton initiative. Have a service where you can donate old clothes via Hospice UK charity shops. Uses non-mulesed sheep wool and no fur. Still uses leather in some products.
New Look's website has a New Look Kind section which covers their sustainable goals. They state how they're working with both the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to tackle these important issues within their brand.
Like other companies, they're striving to use more organic or recycled cotton in their clothing, reduce plastic waste, and reduce their carbon footprint. Although they still have a long way to go, they've succeeded in being 100% carbon neutral in their internal operations. The next step would be reduce their footprint in supply chains too.
The best way to save the planet (even if you need to buy from the high street).
In this debate, we must remember how fast fashion brands survive upon consumer demand for the latest trends. Fast turnovers and affordable prices are key to their success. With words like sustainable, eco-friendly, and ethical becoming more popular with consumers, there is the fear that our fresh and sustainable shopping habits have, to an extent, become a trend in itself which companies can capitalise upon. You may be buying as much as you did before, the only difference is is that what you're buying has a 'conscious' label on it.
A study by Sandra Roo in 2017 at the Chalmers University of Technology focused on how the fashion industry can minimise environmental damage. She noted the power that consumers have. How by buying high quality garments built for longevity is the"most important factor from an environmental perspective." For as long as we are using our clothes to the fullest extent, we're preventing clothing from going to landfill. Although sustainable and ethical changes from large companies are important, our individual choices weigh up too.
If you need to buy clothing and a high street store is one of your only options, only buy what is necessary and look for products with environmentally friendly materials. Buy less and buy better.