Over the last few years, the world has looked with a critical eye at the fashion industry’s culture of waste and exploitation of developing nations. As a result, many brands have put forward ethical fashion initiatives, marketing themselves as sustainable and ethical. These initiatives are arguably hypocritical marketing ploys to improve brand image.
The Rana Plaza disaster saw the deaths of over 1100 people, and the building’s owners charged with murder. The world saw this disaster and cried out at the fashion industry, calling for progressive change to how factories function in developing countries, and denouncing fast fashion as unethical. The fashion industry has responded primarily through trying to better its image, with endless sustainable and ethical fashion campaigns, fuelled by activism, being endorsed by fast-fashion brands.
Announced this week, Olympia Le-Tan, Uniqlo and UNHCR are teaming up together to produce screen-printed shirts and tote bags which will support displaced women in Malaysia and Afghanistan. All proceeds will be donated to the worthwhile cause, funding these women skilled in textile skills such as embroidery, to better their lives. This is a campaign to be lauded, however it does come as one initiative, in a line of initiatives, that create a cynical picture of fashion brands taking up activist causes to improve brand image, rather than being motivated by philanthropy. Specifically, a problematic dynamic is created where popular, franchised brands approach fast fashion as a topic.
What brand doesn’t want to be associated with good ethics, quality product and leaving a positive legacy in its wake? This seems to be the primary thesis pushing recent activity from H&M. The fast-fashion brand embraced ethical fashion tactics this World Recycle Week with an ambitious recycling campaign. A quick overview, H&M partnered with artist M.I.A. to market a World Recycle Week initiative where consumers were encouraged to donate old clothing in-store, to be recycled into new fibres. This was a positive move for the brand, with the H&M website claiming 555 tones of water will be saved with each standard shirt that is donated. Hannah Gedda, head of Sustainability was very eloquent speaking of H&M’s aims for this on the retailer’s website.
“We still have more to do, but already today we make so-called closed-loop products from denim of recycled fabric from the garments you hand in.”
However, claims that campaigns like this are making a dent in the issues caused by fast-fashion are easily undermined. The problematics lie in whether or not the root of the problem of fast fashion is being addressed – industry reliance on sweatshop culture. H&M’s initiative is heavy with good intention, however, of the 1000 tonnes of clothing H&M is aiming to collect, how much of that is reusable textile? Much like any other recycling industry, there are standards that must be met by a recycled product for it to be remade into another practical object. Further, the Guardian reports that it would take up to 12 years for H&M to recycle that weight of fibre.
There is, alternatively, a much larger flaw in the retailer’s campaign – the hypocritical act of handing out vouchers in return for the donation of clothing. Exchange vouchers further encourage the purchase of clothing in a ‘fast’ way, undermining the sustainability that H&M is trying to encourage.
Even brands that market themselves as sustainable and ‘anti-‘ fast-fashion can fall in with the majority of fast-fashion retailers. Uniqlo creates “life-wear,” clothing that is marketed as clothing that will be long lasting and of good quality. Uniqlo is not completely innocent of fast-fashion sins though. In 2011 Japanese journalist Masuo Yokota released a book The Glory and Disgrace of Uniqlo which claimed that Uniqlo was undermining their corporate social responsibility through using factory warehouses that payed low wages, and involved distressing conditions.
We have to ask, do initiatives from brands like Uniqlo that benefit refugees and create positive change in the world, and a genuine aim towards changing fast-fashion mentality, excuse their exploitations in other developing nations?
Is Ethical Fashion Possible?
Good news for those despairing at this article comes from Fashion Revolution Week, an initiative that was introduced in response to the Rana Plaza disaster. This initiative encourages the consumer to consider the power they have in creating a more sustainable fashion community, and this does not even include consuming less.
The phenomenon of #haulternatives encourages consumers to buy their clothing from sources such as op-shops and second hand clothing stores, alleviating demand for fast fashion. Also on the agenda is creating a plubic awareness of the connections between where your clothing is made and where you are buying it from. Carry Somers, one of the founders of Fashion Revolution, told Dazed;
“…ask that question – ‘Who made my clothes?’ Everyone can do that. …That’s our main focus, to apply pressure and ask brands to publicly acknowledge their supply chain.”
It is of course, easier for smaller brands and consumers to change their habits and become more ethical, however, it will take more than hypocritical campaigns from ‘fast-fashion’ retailer such as H&M to create a change on a larger scale. What needs to be addressed to achieve ethical fashion, is the root of the problem – the exploitation or workers in developing countries.