Fast fashion has a bad rap in the ethical fashion community for good reason. The ever-quickening pace of apparel production contributes to consumers treating clothing as cheap and disposable, resulting in more clothing-clogged landfills. And the emphasis on speed can contribute to the unfair treatment of garment laborers in factories that prioritize quick and high-volume output over worker health and safety.
What, then, is an ethical fashion enthusiast to make of a fast fashion company's claims to be addressing those very issues?
It's a question made pertinent by retail giants H&M and Asos, two European companies that have collections specifically dedicated to addressing the ethics of production. H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2011, which features a selection of garments that are allegedly more planet-friendly due to the usage of environmentally sustainable materials. Asos' answer to the production ethics question is the Made in Kenya collection that was first launched in 2010, which consists of pieces produced by a factory called Soko Kenya that was founded to create job opportunities in a disadvantaged area.
At face value, both these initiatives seem to be overwhelmingly positive. But they remain controversial amongst ethical fashion advocates, who disagree on whether the initiatives carry real weight or merely represent corporate attempts to "greenwash," or present an eco-friendly image that belies unsustainable practices.
Are these ethical fashion initiatives legitimate?
Parsing out the details is tricky. On the one hand, retailers like H&M are working on such a large scale that even small adjustments to their supply chain have a sizable impact. At the moment, only 26 percent of the brand's offerings are made from sustainable materials, according to H&M Creative Advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson. But H&M's scale is such that even at 26 percent, it's reportedly the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world.
"Our goal every year is to increase the share of [sustainably sourced] fabrics in our total material use," Johansson said via email. "Doing so... helps lift these materials to scale and create demand for further innovation."
It's a valid point — it takes time and resources for farms or factories to invest in more sustainable alternatives to the status quo, and without the support of bigger brands like H&M in those alternatives, the investment can be hard to justify.
A similar strain of logic makes sense of Asos' relationship with Soko. The factory was founded by Jo Maiden in what is essentially a "truck-stop town" in Kenya as a way to provide job alternatives to a population often forced to turn to prostitution or poaching to make ends meet. Soko, which provides social services like AIDS prevention and literacy training in addition to employing about 50 people, has leaned heavily on Asos' support to grow slowly and sustainably over the years. While the factory produces for a few other small brands in addition to Asos, the mega-retailer's partnership has offered security and stability the smaller brands couldn't have.
Both H&M and Asos assert that what they pioneer in their "ethical" collections can, with proof of concept, be scaled to the rest of the clothing they produce. H&M, for example, started out by using eco-friendly textile Tencel in its Conscious collection in 2016 and is now allegedly one of the largest users of Tencel globally. Asos likewise claims not to see its ethical initiatives as being siloed in the Made in Kenya collection or the "Eco Edit," a curation of eco-friendly pieces pulled from what's already being sold on the brand's website.
"We're never going to create a collection that's all about sustainability," Asos womenswear design director Vanessa Spence told Fashionista while visiting New York earlier this year. "We'd rather get it within the thousands and thousands of options in our offering."
To that end, Asos recently moved its ethical trade-focused team into the sourcing department to encourage more direct collaboration between the two.
"One of our internal mottos is, 'Changing the way we buy so our customers don't have to,'" director of corporate responsibility Louise McCabe explained. "So they don’t have to go, 'Oh, is this from the Asos Eco range or the mainstream line?' We're trying to make progress across the board."
Both H&M and Asos have taken a variety of other measures to address their impact, like publishing their factory lists, an action seen by many as an important step toward transparency and accountability. Asos is looking into establishing more distribution centers closer to customers in order to cut down on the carbon emissions involved in transporting clothing, while H&M has been praised by Greenpeace for its efforts to healthfully manage chemicals.
In short, both companies are making real efforts to address their environmental and social impact.
So what's the problem?
The argument that a fast fashion business model is inherently unsustainable remains.
H&M reported in a press release that it produced an average of 600 million garments in 2004. When asked how that number has changed in the past 13 years, an H&M representative told Fashionista that the brand "cannot provide an accurate answer for that question" due to the "ever changing model of our business." But considering that H&M opened its thousandth store in 2004 and now operates 4,474 stores globally, it's safe to assume the number of garments produced has increased exponentially. If garment production increased in direct proportion to the number of stores operating, that would mean that H&M will produce a staggering 2.68 billion garments in 2017.
Even accounting for the possible errors in that estimate due to differences in individual stores' sell-through rates and the growth of online sales, the point remains: H&M produces massive amounts of clothing. And in spite of the brand's recycling drives of recent years and hopes of working toward a closed-loop system, the simple fact of the matter is that the technology does not yet exist to completely recycle old clothes and turn them into new ones. Recycling clothing is better than throwing it away, but it doesn't reverse the impact of producing it in the first place.
Asos operates on a comparatively smaller scale, working with roughly 24 million garments yearly. Still, that's enough to keep one of the brand's warehouses, which the website notes is the size of six soccer fields, full of clothing at any given time. Fair labor-focused partners like Soko Kenya produce a tiny percentage of that overall number, CSR director McCabe admits.
Furthermore, while both brands have published factory lists in an admirable move toward increased transparency, that doesn't mean their production in those factories is above reproach. In August 2016, H&M faced backlash for having clothing produced in a factory in Myanmar where 14-year-olds were working 12-hour days. Asos made headlines just a few months later after child laborers — 7- and 8-year-olds who were working 60-hour weeks — were found in its supply chain. As recently as last month, protests over working conditions and benefits at another factory H&M uses in Myanmar turned violent as garment workers sought to make their voices heard.
In cases like these, it is quite possible that the companies were genuinely unaware of what was going on before it was uncovered by the press or watchdog groups. But that's part of the problem. Even if the incidents involved "unapproved outsourcing," as Asos claimed at the time, it's still an issue. If a company is too large and unwieldy to ensure that no 7-year-olds are illegally making its clothes, how can it market itself as providing a more ethically sound alternative?
How do the brands respond to these critiques?
When faced with the argument that fast fashion is an inherently unsustainable model, H&M's Johansson responded via email: "We do not consider ourselves to be a fast fashion company." No attempt was made to defend fast fashion as a potentially sustainable option, and the desire to distance the brand from fast fashion entirely — in spite of the mind-blowing scale and speed at which the brand produces — was made explicit.
Asos CSR director McCabe was more direct in her response to the critique that fast fashion is inherently unsustainable. "I think systemically, that is the case," she said. "And you always have that at our job. Do you work within, or do you stand aside and go, 'That's not good so I won't have anything to do with it'? I've opted for working within, and I can see dramatic changes and shifting of direction."
How should conscious consumers respond?
Hearing the earnestness in McCabe's voice, it's hard to disbelieve her sincerity. Individuals like herself, and undoubtedly many in H&M's headquarters, are genuinely looking to minimize the negative impact their brands have on people and the planet. And as noted above, their massive scale makes any positive action these brands take have a huge ripple effect; H&M being 26 percent sustainable has a bigger impact than 10 small brands that are 100 percent sustainable.
The fact that H&M and Asos are making some sort of effort still sets them apart from other mega retailers like Forever 21, which has lagged behind its peers in addressing environmental and social injustice in its production. Interestingly enough, the Zaras and Forever 21s of the world sometimes escape critiques of fast fashion simply because they draw less attention to their manufacturing integrity (or lack thereof) than H&M and Asos do. While they still have a long way to go, the companies that are making some effort to right their wrongs shouldn't be punished while their their less-conscious peers walk free.
So, do H&M Conscious and Asos Made in Kenya count as ethical fashion options? Yes and no. If it's a choice between fast fashion made by one of those companies' "ethical" lines and fast fashion by a company not even making an effort to become more ethical, the choice should be clear — H&M's efforts deserve more support than Forever 21's complacency. In the long run, the success of brands that seek to address problems over brands that don't is a good thing.
But the truth is that there's almost always an even better option than shopping fast fashion, even from one of these special collections. Small brands that own their own factories or know their artisans are directly responsible for their manufacturing processes, so it's easier for their good intentions to be translated into good practices. And quite often, their wares are more sturdily made, so they'll be less likely to need discarding anytime soon. If you're really looking to support an ethical business rather than merely hoping to assuage your own conscience, supporting those kinds of brands is your best bet.