How Fast Fashion is Greenwashing

In April 2019, Swedish fashion giant H&M revealed its latest sustainable fashion innovation: clothes made from fruit peelings that would otherwise be discarded. The new line, part of H&M’s Conscious Collection, featured Pinatex products, a leather-like material made from sturdy food wastage like orange peelings and pineapple leaves. The Pinatex clothes were accompanied by organic silk, organic cotton, and clothes made from recycled plastic, but the food-friendly clothing certainly got the most attention from the press.

It takes 480 pineapple leaves to produce just one square meter of Pinatex. This usually would equate to the waste of about 16 pineapples, but the material requires that only the long leaf fibers are utilized, which means that, inherently, some of the pineapple leaves are still discarded. Pinatex also contains plastic and petroleum-based agents, which not only offset any potential positive eco-friendly impact of using fruit fibers, but also renders the material non-biodegradable. H&M thus engaged in what can only be described as surface-level sustainability, a mere toe-dip into a dominant cultural conversation before returning to business-as-usual.

This method of using the climate crisis as a means of marketing without any fundamental change to business is called Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt. H&M are just part of a wider circle of fast fashion brands jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. In March 2019, Primark – notoriously famous for its child labor scandal and subsequent challengingly low prices back in 2008 – launched a sustainable denim collection, made from 100% sustainable cotton sourced from farmer training program in India and Pakistan, and priced from as low as £13. Online fast fashion giant ASOS quietly introduced recycled products into its portfolio, one pair of black men’s jeans proudly proclaiming, “Being less dependent on brand-new materials means you’re saving on resources like water and energy.”

The climate crisis is the talk of the town. In the case of multinational fast fashion brands, the damning documentary The True Cost, the ambitious research project entitled Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli, and the health and safety nightmare at the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, all meant that fashion was high on the list of industries to make more ethical and more sustainable. The primary question to answer then became: How could all the inputs into the production process, such as materials, technology, and machinery, reduce environmental impact?

The unsustainability of production processes in fashion is only one part of the fast fashion equation. The scale and pace at which collections of clothing are being produced, discarded, and likely reproduced again in the form of a re-emerging fashion trend are enormous, resulting in a textile waste issue that fast fashion is currently turning a blind eye to. The narrative around textile waste is that it is usually consumer-generated, by those throwing out unworn clothes and not knowing the correct manner to dispose of them. Major fashion corporations absolve themselves of responsibility in this narrative – the question remains though as to where all unsold stock ends up. Ultimately, a single-minded focus on amending the production process to meet the sustainability criteria reveals that the objective is still to get consumers in the door.

Fast fashion is also most likely the prime suspect in the distillation of the term ‘sustainability,’ drilled down to become synonymous with ‘eco-friendly,’ at the expense of other facets of sustainability. Ecological sustainability alone will be virtually impossible to achieve without other elements of sustainability: economic, health, social, and cultural. Fashion’s reluctance to address sustainability holistically, and instead pick it apart to fit its own agenda, is perhaps more detrimental to the environment than it is productive.

Inditex, announced Zara’s sustainability measures in July 2019, all of which cater solely to the idea of ecological sustainability: the ambitious targets include 80% of all energy consumed by Zara HQ coming from renewable sources, 100% sustainable, organic, or recycled fabric in all collections, and zero landfill waste by the end of 2025. Zara executives making the announcement failed to mention how this sustainability angle would translate to their garment-workers and suppliers in developing countries.

Beyond Zara, the vast majority of high street fashion brands have a lasting presence in cheap garment-producing factories, and protests for better conditions in the factories have taken place as recently as May 2019 in Bangalore, India and January 2019 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bubbles of discontent are also brewing in Ethiopia, where the garment-making industry now claims to have the cheapest labor in the world, producing for the likes of Calvin Klein.

Some fast fashion has tried to involve the human element in their sustainability effort. Investing in a pair of ASOS recycled denim shorts, “supports Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA)’s sustainable farming” efforts. The product description boasts about providing vital agricultural training and business awareness to farmers, in turn improving living conditions and education. The claims are lofty – are these farmers being educated to become self-sufficient in the long-run, or to continue to provide for companies like ASOS? The latter hypothesis leads us to conclude that these farming communities are financially dependent on organisations like ASOS; their profits and losses directly correlate with those of the Western fashion giant.  In addition, should cotton crops ever fail, as they have done in Florida, what would be the use in being an expert in cotton farming? Surely the more sustainable subject to teach would be how to diversify one’s income in a risk-prone climate.

One could argue that whether making a dress out of Pinatex or polyester, the payment to the farmer or garment-worker is reflective of wages and living costs in that particular corner of the world. But what does that argument do for lifting people out of poverty? Increased incomes, by law of economics, lead to increased purchasing power, which could be the key to opening and kickstarting new, higher-value market economies on national levels. But as long as prices in the West are kept low, this development elsewhere is sufficiently challenged.

Lines of clothing labelled as ‘sustainable,’ such as H&M’s Conscious Collection, represent a small minority of a fashion brand’s overall stock, but a large proportion of what the brand shouts about in their marketing. Such collections satisfy a growing market niche, and for the rest, their apathy is fueled, if not encouraged, by the thousands of other non-sustainable clothing on offer. These ratios themselves reveal the fallibility of fast fashion’s attempts at becoming sustainable, or the very lack of a credible attempt altogether.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Dec. 3, 2019.


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