The scandal of ‘fast fashion’ has become a normalised business model in the western world which is now hiding itself behind a hypocritical veneer of sustainability. This has become a crass phenomenon to hide the atrocious environmental and workers’ rights record of high street stores.
The multi-million dollar fashion group H&M advertises its environmental initiatives to attempt to make its products sustainable in its website’s “sustainability” page. One of the main three subsections of the “sustainability” page is called “working conditions”. On this page, H&M openly states that it does not own any factories, but works with “independent suppliers, often in developing countries”. This means that the production of clothes is outsourced to local factories in third world countries with no system in place to ensure that workers are paid a living wage, or that security measures are respected.
H&M has published a code of conduct meant to be signed by the suppliers, but it is not a legally binding document and therefore is worth next to nothing, as proven repeatedly by reports of child labour, slave labour and inhumane working conditions in factories supplying for this brand. H&M is not the only company to be involved in illegal working practices. Inditex, Zara’s parent company, has also been involved in similar scandals.
In April of 2013, 1135 people died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse, and thousands more were left injured. The employees in the warehouse had repeatedly pointed out the signs of damage, but were forced to return to work. Although the factory’s managers are directly responsible, High street chains that supply their clothes from the factories are morally responsible for creating a business model where suppliers are asked to produce more and more pieces at lower and lower costs, putting lives in danger in the process.
In another page, H&M claims that “96 per cent of electricity used throughout our own operations comes from renewable sources”. Interesting word choice, since in another page of the website they explicitly claim to not own any factories. So what are these “operations” that are supposedly so energy efficient? We can only guess that H&M is talking about its stores and offices. Since virtually all of these are in the western world, it is not surprising that they are able to source their energy from renewable sources. But if they were to publicly show the environmental impact of the company as a whole, and not just the retail sector, things would look much different.
Another scourge of the fast fashion industry is the prevalent use of plastic. These cheap fibres are not biodegradable, and over time break up into smaller and smaller pieces, so that when we do our laundry, they end up in our wastewater, ultimately contaminating the entire world’s water sources. A recent study found that in Europe alone, more than 70 per cent of the water that comes out of our taps contains plastic.
Finally, the fast fashion industry produces an incredible amount of waste. The clothes advertised in these chain stores are designed to go out of fashion quickly, with different items arriving in stores every week. Consumers are therefore encouraged to discard their old clothes and replace them with new trends. Clothes are seen as disposable goods, instead of a long-term investment. Under this logic, the brand that can manage to sell the same piece of clothing at the lowest price makes the most profit. Quality becomes secondary, and although the new t-shirt we bought a month ago is already fraying at the edges, we know we can easily afford to replace it the next time we walk down our high street.
Young people are the main target for fast fashion companies to sell their clothes. These brands know that millennials are passionate about the environment, which is why they market their products as eco-friendly and fair trade, when in reality they are not. But we have a right to have access to quality clothes that are durable, that do not harm our environment or the company’s workers. We deserve more than empty statements and misleading marketing schemes. By becoming more conscious about what we consume we can put pressure on these companies to really change their business model.