Fast Fashion Attempts an Environmental Makeover

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Retailers tackle the eco footprint of fashion, from the source of the fabric to the day you throw it away

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Spanish retailer Zara has launched a line of eco-friendly clothing called Join Life made of recycled and organic fabrics. (Zara)

At H&M’s flagship Canadian store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a rack of spiffy navy-blue jackets is rolled from the back room to the display floor.

“This one is made of wool with recycled fibres, and this one has recycled cotton,” H&M spokesperson Emily Scarlett says with a smile, showing off items from the chain’s eco-friendly line, dubbed the Conscious collection.

Scarlett points out proudly that H&M is also the world’s second-largest user of organic cotton.

The Swedish chain is eager to spruce up its environmental image. So is Zara, the massive fast fashion retailer from Spain, which just launched its first sustainable fashion line called Join Life, which uses organic and recycled materials.

Both retailers, which have dozens of locations in Canada, have come under attack in recent years — along with other fast fashion chains such as Forever 21, Joe Fresh and Topshop — for encouraging consumers to buy more clothing than ever, creating waste that eventually goes to landfill.

Fast fashion gets its name from its ability to take the latest style trends from the runway to the store floor in record time. But the industry can’t move fast enough when it comes to its impact on the environment.

Critics aren’t buying the stylish environmentalism.

Misinformation in the marketing

“I am very skeptical of both the Conscious Collection and the new initiative that Zara is launching,” said Nikolay Anguelov, author of The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, a book about fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment.

“There’s misinformation in the marketing message. The eco label is not deserved. The eco is a minor improvement, but unfortunately, it’s communicated to the consumer as if it’s problem solved.”

A professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Anguelov says his research shows that fabric accounts for only about 13 per cent of the cost of any piece of clothing, so a switch to natural textiles doesn’t make much of a difference. The fashion industry’s carbon footprint is huge, including energy used for transportation and toxic chemicals, such as bleach and dyes, used in manufacturing.

Then there’s the problem of massive waste. Anguelov says Millennials are consuming five times the number of apparel products as the generation before them and then discarding much of it.

That trend is driven by low prices, he says.

Mountains of textiles tossed in the trash

“We sometimes buy things we don’t need at places like Zara and H&M,” shopper Rafaella Silva admitted to CBC News, showing off the three sweaters she had just purchased at Zara for a total of $70.

“It’s mainly because of the price. If I had a choice to go somewhere that I could purchase something that would last longer and the price wasn’t that much, of course I would, for sure.”

rafaella-silva-clothes
Shopper Rafaella Silva spent $70 for two sweaters and a top. The low prices make fast fashion seductive, she said. (CBC)

Municipalities in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia are looking at ways to limit the amount of textiles being dumped in local landfills. A study done by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) showed that North Americans throw away almost 37 kilograms of textiles every year.

“You want a jacket, you want a sweater, you want a hoodie,” says Colin White, a student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who had just bought a winter coat at Zara. “It’s just cheaper here.”

The fashion industry has responded, forming its own group to address the waste problem. Based in San Francisco, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a collaboration between two very odd bedfellows: super-retailer Walmart and Patagonia, the high-end maker of outdoor clothing that describes itself as an “activist company” when it comes to the environment.

It’s an industry-wide problem

Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey says the group’s 185 members include most fast fashion retailers, including H&M and Inditex, Zara’s parent company.

“This is not just a fast fashion problem,” he points out. “This is a problem across all segments. It’s a systemic challenge across all supply chains.”

 

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Pieces of clothing are seen in trash at a City of Toronto waste transfer station. (CBC)

Kibbey says a huge amount of industry investment is going into new, “closed loop” technology, where items of clothing can be broken down and recycled to make new items. It’s also known as a circular system, or a “cradle to cradle” approach.

“There’s a lot of investment and activity in that area right now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go. But given the amount of activity I see, this will be our future. It’s just a question of how long will it take us to get there.”

Trying to spur recycling innovation

H&M is in its second year of a “Global Change” innovation challenge in which five winners split a grant worth €1 million ($1.5 million Cdn). The award is meant to be a catalyst to accelerate the shift from “a linear to a circular fashion industry,” says the company. “The aim is to protect the planet and our living conditions.”

Even some anti-consumer advocates praise the chains that are taking action.

‘They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.– Madeleine Somerville, author of All You Need Is Less

“I’m impressed,” said Madeleine Somerville, the Calgary-based author of All You Need Is Less, a book about how to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

“I think any time a retailer takes steps to develop manufacturing processes to actually address the waste and the pollution that comes from creating these clothes, that needs to be recognized and celebrated.”

But she notes that for all retailers, the overarching goal is to sell more clothing.

“They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.”

Consumers are challenged to make a choice between the health of the planet and their desire to wear the very latest, most inexpensive, fashion trends.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said fabric accounts for six per cent of the cost of a piece of clothing. In fact, it accounts for about 13 per cent.
    Oct 04, 2016 1:21 PM ET

*This story first appeared on CBC

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