Greening the high street: marketing trick or real deal?

| 10th May 2011
From organic cotton to Fairtrade fabric recent years have seen the high street making an effort to go green. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Sella Oneko investigates

The high street is going green, or at least it seems to be. With organic cotton, recycled fabric and natural dyes making their way into the likes of H&M and Marks & Spencer, preserving the planet is becoming part of mainstream fashion. But could it all be too good to be true? After all, whether it’s poor working conditions or chemical dyes, critics are always having a go at the fashion industry. And the impact of fast fashion on the environment can’t be denied. From the vast amount of water and pesticides used in cotton production to the carbon footprint of transporting garments from China or Bangladesh, the high street and saving the planet don’t always go hand-in-hand.

90 per cent of clothing in the UK is imported, mainly from countries such as India and China. According to DEFRA we buy about two million tonnes of clothes every year, one fifth of which is bought from fast fashion brands such as Primark. Just to top that off, one million tonnes of clothes are thrown away every year, with 50 percent of the total ending up in a landfill. But with Primark’s profits down, consumers seem to be moving away from ultra-cheap, single-season garments. And with greater emphasis being placed on ethics and planet-friendliness by consumers, the high street is finally starting to respond.

The pace might be slow but things are changing. H&M, for instance, has embraced organic cotton and in March launched the Conscious Collection; a capsule collection of pieces made from organic cotton, eco-friendly Tencel and recycled textiles. The clothes are stylish and not much pricier than conventional clothing, and have already garnered a famous fan in the shape of actress Natalie Portman. Additionally H&M has looked into reducing its use of water by encouraging the use of rain water to rinse its garments and it was certified by the EU flower eco-label for controlling the use of harmful chemicals in some of its baby clothing. But H&M’s success begs a question. If the Swedish label can do it, why aren’t the others?

Allana McAspurn of Dutch sustainability NGO, Made-By, argues that while fashion houses do believe that there is a market for ethical fashion, they are experimenting with new tactics because of higher commodity prices rather than any real desire to make things greener. ‘High street brands are feeling the effect of inflationary hikes in raw material prices and the overall rise in production costs,’ she comments. ‘One way of dealing with this is to think of how these costs can be controlled and create efficiencies.’

According to Alex McIntosh of the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, high street labels like H&M are actually struggling to become more eco-friendly, as they are not able to reconcile their ‘sell-more-for-less’ approach with a truly sustainable business strategy. At the moment, he says, fashion is hugely disposable and in order to become truly sustainable, people need to learn the real value of a garment. ‘High street labels often try to market consumerism as a way to happiness but you don’t really need 300 t-shirts in your cupboard. If people bought one high quality t-shirt for £30, they wouldn’t have to buy 10 for £3 each.’

Fashion, according to McIntosh, allows people to buy a piece of clothing emotionally. People respond much more to the heritage and the story behind the clothes. This, he says, is a huge problem for high street labels and is where independent designers who can give their fashion authenticity have an advantage. Unfortunately small-scale designers will never be able to compete with the bulk and price advantage of their giant counterparts. However ethical fashion labels like People Tree have made it into the mainstream. Originally from Japan, the Fairtrade and Soil Association certified label has managed to make its way into Topshop, ASOS and John Lewis. Using 50 per cent organic cotton as well as safe dyes and natural materials, People Tree has managed to shake off the hippie image of ethical clothing and have made it their mission to promote natural and non-polluting apparel. So how do they compete with mainstream fashion labels? According to a People Tree spokesman, the hand production and the buying cycles do tend to be longer than in conventional fashion, which is more sustainable. The real question though, is whether consumers are prepared to give ‘slow fashion’ a chance.

The field in which the high street is really making strides is ethics. While conditions aren’t perfect everywhere, brands have responded to the outrage caused by revelations of child labour and disgraceful conditions by creating new rules for suppliers and introducing Fairtrade collections. Marks & Spencer, for instance, have adopted a more holistic approach to sourcing. In addition to this year’s ethical collection, ‘Indigo Green’ with its long flowing dresses, batiks and embroideries, M&S plans to make 50 per cent of its food and clothing sustainable by 2020. For its fashion collection this means clothes are made using organic, Fairtrade cotton or fabrics like lyocell, also known by its brand name Tencel, which is made from wood pulp cellulose. To facilitate a move to more sustainable clothing, M&S are also working with WWF to help farmers reduce pesticide usafe and they are trying to introduce more eco-friendly methods in the factories where their clothes are produced. To complete the cycle, M&S have also partnered with Oxfam. If you return unwanted M&S clothing to Oxfam stores, you receive a £5 voucher for your next buy at M&S. While this does encourage repeat custom, it also ensures that at least some clothes are recycled.

In a survey, Made-By asked 1000 British consumers between the ages of 16 and 65 what they valued in fashion. 75 percent of consumers felt that cotton farmers should be paid fair prices, while 60 per cent expressed a wish for their clothing to be made in an eco-friendly way. McIntosh, however, doesn’t believe that high street shoppers are really demanding change. ‘Most consumers don’t understand where their clothes come from at all,’ he says. ‘Buyers rarely have a connection to where their clothes come from and due to the very complex supply chain, there is little understanding of what really goes into, say a pair of jeans. After all, until recently many brands had little connection to the factories where the clothes were made themselves.’‘Many brands now have a good grip of their first tier factories and have an understanding of where their product is made and by whom,’ comments Made-By’s Allana McAspurn. ‘It is more challenging for them to engage with dye houses and mills where wet processes are done and where some of the biggest environmental impacts occurs.’

Conventional fabric is blended with a mix of cotton and synthetic fibres, which can make recycling difficult. McAspurn argues that the demand for fast fashion is one of the biggest challenges in improving sustainability in the fashion industry. About 80 per cent of organic cotton is grown in India and in order to fulfill the requirements of high street brands and their bulk production; alternatives are needed to keep the supply of eco-friendly cotton afloat. Although high street brands are experimenting with different materials, they still encourage people to continue buying at a fast rate. According to McIntosh this simply transfers the problem from the conventional cotton or synthetic material to the organic cotton. Both McIntosh and McAspurn argue that designers also need play a key role in making people more aware of the environmental impact of fashion. ‘Designers have the ability to change the way people engage with fashion and think about things’, says McIntosh. McAspurn agrees, saying that ‘if designers are engaged and understand the various impacts at each stage of a product’s lifecycle, they can make certain changes at the design stage, which will ultimately ensure greater longevity of the product and decrease the need for washing and general aftercare.’

So how can the fashion industry put sustainability into practice? Essentially the answer is to go back to a more local, smaller model. According to McIntosh the efforts of high street brands are a big step in the right direction, but true sustainability would need to put en entirely different value on clothing. Next time you need a piece of clothing, instead of looking for a bargain, why not try a local designer and perhaps the world will learn to appreciate fashion for the work that goes into it, rather than the price.

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