Do Fast Fashion Brands Live up to Their Sustainability and Feminist Claims?

February 16, 2020

It's been around a year since I stopped buying from fast fashion brands after researching the industry's environmental and social impacts. I wasn't planning on writing another post about it, but my building irritation at fast fashion brands using sustainability and feminism in their marketing inspired me this weekend.

A few days ago I saw fast fashion brand Pretty Little Thing celebrating International Women's Day by showing us what it's like to be 'a strong female at PLT'. The brand introduced us to several female managers on their LinkedIn and Twitter. Women in managerial positions is always something to celebrate, but a fast fashion brand talking about International Women's Day felt pretty off.

International Women's Day is actually not until March, but the 11th February is a day dedicated to Women and Girls in Science and the challenges that they still face. Not exactly relevant to a fast fashion clothing brand. To me, it felt that the brand saw this as a bandwagon to jump on, as if using feminism as a marketing tool shows they are an ally.

I didn't know much about the brand, I have never bought anything from them and only had my assumptions that they are a fast fashion brand so they must be bad, right? So I researched into it.

Fashion brands frequently use feminist themes in their marketing. In their advertisements and campaigns, and even feminist slogans on mass-produced t-shirts. Do we always know who made these and how much they were paid? Most of the time the answer is no. Brands including Zara and Victoria's Secret have even been accused of stealing ideas and designs from women.

I don't think using feminism in campaigns is always wrong. But only if the brand is genuinely supporting women. Do fast fashion brands deserve to use feminism in their marketing?

Fast fashion can be defined as cheap, trendy clothing, that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.
- Good on You 

According to Good on You, 80% of garment workers are female aged 18-35. In a deliberate move to save money, the majority of fashion brands produce their clothing in low-income countries with poor environmental policies and where workers' rights violations are common, including harassment, abuse, and child labour. Workers can also experience poor working conditions with little regard to health and safety.

A 2019 Oxfam report surveyed male and female garment workers in Bangladesh. They found that 100% of garment workers earn below the living wage, with 91% unable to afford to feed their family, 72% unable to afford healthcare, 56% experiencing regular wage cuts, 85% unable to afford to finish their own education, and 89% unable to afford education for their children. Some garment workers in the UK are also being underpaid. The minimum wage for workers over 25 is £8.21 an hour, yet in 2018 factories in Leicester were found to be paying their workers as low as £3.50 an hour. And these are not isolated findings. A quick Google search will bring up countless other examples.

Consumers in the UK are getting pleasure and enjoyment from fashion and that is coming at a cost to workers and the environment..
- Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds

The majority of clothes sold in the UK are produced in Asia. This is a very complex supply chain that the product passes through before ending up in a UK store. The supply chain starts with the raw material, like a cotton plant, goes through the factories where this material is made into clothing, and then through the distribution network before being available to buy in shops and online. When buying a new clothing item, it's pretty insane when you try to imagine the journey it has been through, and how the people who made it may have been treated.

Most labour and sourcing of materials happens across the world and passes through this complex supply chain before reaching the UK, and the majority of fashion brands don't take enough responsibility for exploitation and their environmental impact. A 2015 Australian report revealed that 91% of retailers surveyed were unaware of where their cotton came from, 75% did not know where their fabrics were sourced, and only 50% could trace where their products were cut and sewn. If fashion brands are unaware of where their clothing comes from, how do they know how their workers are treated? A 2016 report found that 77% of the leading retailers in the UK believed it was likely that modern slavery occurred at some stage in their supply chain. So they are aware it's happening, and they're profiting from it.

Because the major brands do not employ the workers directly, or own the factories they produce in, they are able to profit hugely, all while remaining free of responsibility for the effects of poverty wages, factory disasters, and the ongoing violent treatment of workers.
- Eco-Age

On top of this is the environmental damage from the energy, water, land and chemicals used. The fashion industry is a major contributor to climate change through producing the equivalent of 1.2 billion of CO2 a year which is more than flights and shipping combined! Fashion is also a water intensive industry, using 79 billion cubic metres of fresh water every year. A shirt and pair of jeans can require between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water to produce. The industry is also polluting waters through the chemicals used to make and dye clothes. Even adding rips and tears into jeans requires more chemicals, putting water bodies and workers at risk. By 2030, the fashion industry is predicted to be using an extra 115 million hectares of land to keep up with consumer demand. This land would be much better used to support wildlife going extinct due to habitat loss.

Many fashion brands are guilty of 'green washing', which is making untrue or misleading claims that their brand's behaviour is environmentally friendly. This can trick consumers into thinking the brand is conscious of the environment, potentially making them more likely to buy from them. Examples of this are recycling schemes available through brands such as H&M, Pretty Little Thing, and Boohoo. Brands may also offer small collections made from recycled materials, or 'conscious' collections, which to me is simply the brand admitting that the rest of their products are not conscious or sustainable. Some people may see this as positive and a step in the right direction, but the effectiveness of these recycling schemes is not clear, and these attempts at appearing to be environmentally conscious pale in comparison to the amount of damage these brands are inflicting to people and the planet.

So how do brands measure up?

How can we tell if brands claims of being sustainable, environmentally conscious, and caring about and empowering women are actually true?

Good on You research into how brands impact people, planet and animals so that consumers can make informed, ethical choices. They use information from certification schemes such as Fairtrade and the Global Organic Textile Standard, independent ratings, and even the brand's own public statements. Then, they rate the brand from 1 ('we avoid') to 5 (great). Brands rated a 4 or 5 can then apply the 'good on you rated' stamp on their website.

Let's use Pretty Little Thing, owned by Boohoo, as an example as they are what inspired me to write this post. They are rated a 2 out of 5 meaning 'not good enough'. About them, Good on You says:

It does not publish sufficient relevant information about its environmental policies to give a higher rating. As a shopper you have the right to know how its production practices impact on the environment.
Its labour rating is 'not good enough'. Its final stage of production is audited and reported through [SMETA]. It does not disclose where its final stage of production occurs. It does not disclose whether it pays a living wage at any stage of the supply chain. There is no evidence of listing countries for any of its suppliers. It audits some of its supply chain but does not state which part and what percentage.
Its animal rating is 'it's a start'. It does not use fur, down, exotic animal skin, exotic animal hair and angora. However it uses leather and wool.

Associating themselves with International Women's Day, using feminism to inspire their campaigns, and selling t-shirts with 'feminist' on feels even more nauseating after seeing their lack of transparency. Either they don't know the full story behind their clothing, in which case how can consumers make informed choices, or they are trying to hide something.

Other brands I looked at also scoring 'not good enough' included Missguided, Next, and New Look.

Good on You rated H&M '3 out of 5' meaning 'it's a start', but highlighted that they were accused of abuse of female garment workers in 2018, and in 2019 failed on their 2013 promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage. So there's still a lot of work to do. About them, Good on You said:

It is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative. It offers a recycle program and reports on the percentage of production recovered. However it is a fast fashion brand that produces a mass quantity of clothing. It has set a target to use 100% renewable energy for its own operations by 2035 and it consumes a large proportion of renewable energy. It has not committed to setting a science-based climate change target and it uses some eco-friendly materials in its products. It has set a target to eliminate hazardous chemicals by 2020. It measures and reports on water usage and wastewater management for some of its supply chain.
Its labour rating is 'it's a start' based on the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report. It has a Code of Conduct that covers all of the ILO principles however very few of its facilities have worker empowerment initiatives such as collective bargaining or rights to make a complaint. It traces most of its supply chain. It audits most of its traced facilities. It has made little progress towards ensuring payment of a living wage in its supply chain.
Its animal rating is 'it's a start'. It uses leather and exotic animal hair. It uses down feather but 100% is accredited by the Responsible Down Standard. It uses wool from non-mulesed sheep. It does not use fur, angora or exotic animal skin.

Other brands I looked at also scoring 'it's a start' included Zara, Primark, ASOS and Topshop.

What can we do? 

- Support brands that care about workers and the environment, and avoid ones that have a harmful impact or are lacking in transparency. Find these brands by checking ratings on the Good on You website or their app for Android and Apple.
- If you're concerned your favourite brands aren't doing enough then contact them and tell them so. Pressure from consumers is a huge driver for change.
- Buy second hand to save items going to landfill. This way you can even shop your favourite fast fashion brands without supporting them financially.
- Learn how to repair your clothes instead of immediately throwing them away.
- If buying new clothes, be mindful of what materials the item is made from. Popular fabrics like cotton, polyester and plastic can be harmful.
- Look up brands in Fashion Revolution's 2019 'Fashion Transparency Index' which reviewed brands on how much they disclose about their environmental and social policies and impact.

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