Fast fashion brands are very good at a few things, one of them is self-preservation. Amidst increased awareness about their ugly ways (thanks, in part, to movies like The True Cost), fast fashion retailers are being forced to work overtime to divert attention from their less-than-favorable ways.
For H&M, this has taken the form of recycling initiatives (it just announced a new one in collaboration with singer, MIA) and a “Conscious Collection,” both of which have been in place for years now. More recently, this looks like an embrace of diversity. For its Fall/Winter 2016 runway show, the Swedish fast fashion giant looked to please just about every fashion show goer by casting as many different categories of models as it could. There was plus size model, Ashley Graham; transgender model Andreja Pejic; icon Amber Valletta (who also falls into the category of “older,” as she 42 years old); there were racially diverse models (think: Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, Soo Joo, etc.); and bona fide supermodels like Freja, Natasha Poly, and Valetta (pictured below). And just in: the fast fashion giant has cast transgender Caitlyn Jenner for an upcoming campaign. Wow! H&M is such a wonderful company, right? On the surface, yes! Too bad these efforts were being used to mask ugly truths.
Now consider Zara. The Spanish fast fashion giant has opened a new flagship in the heart of Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. According to a press release in connection with the recently opened location: “In keeping with the aim of Zara’s parent company, Inditex Group, to have 100% eco-efficient stores by 2020, the three-level 47,361-sq.-ft. flagship uses ‘highly demanding’ sustainability measures across all its processes, along with energy-efficiency features and recycling. As a result, it will consume 30% less energy and 50% less water compared to a conventional store. Zara has applied to the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for the project.”
The move comes after a 2012 commitment from Zara to eliminate all discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain and products by 2020. If that all sounds rather impressive to you, you’re not wrong. That would be a huge feat and a beneficial one for most parties involved. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have seen this before, and its called “greenwashing.”
As you likely know by now, fast fashion is a dirty industry – second only to the oil industry, according to recent reports. Pollution aside, fast fashion is also known for its willful ignorance when it comes to human rights abuses and worker safety threats. In order to keep costs low, fast fashion suppliers and even the big-name retailers, themselves, operate in ethically questionable ways. As we have seen in a number of recent lawsuits, they fire pregnant employees to avoid paying health insurance costs (hey, Nasty Gal). They discriminate against transgender employees (hey, Forever 21). They target shoppers based on race (that’s, H&M) and employees based on religion and sex (and you, Zara). Their suppliers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In short, fast fashion is an industry founded upon low wages, poor worker standards, chemicals and waste, and design piracy. In order to avoid the bad press that comes with the aforementioned staples of the industry (which are, in fact, well documented), fast fashion retailers engage in easier, cheaper ways to rehabilitate their images. Enter: greenwashing, the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of fast fashion). This often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims.
Some recent examples, aside from Zara’s new eco-friendly space latest recycling stint? Well, you may recall that last summer, H&M launched a new effort to promote recycling as it seeks to cut its environmental impact, boost its ethical credentials and address looming shortages of raw materials.
A couple of year ago, Forever 21 announced plans to install the largest single-rooftop solar-power system in Los Angeles County. There are also, of course, the massive PR campaigns to showcase the launch of new “organic” or “natural” lines of clothing, such as Topshop's "Reclaim to Wear," waste-reducing initiative.
The notion of greenwashing, if used loosely, arguably also applies to other efforts by fast fashion retailers to position themselves more favorably in the eyes of consumers. Take Nasty Gal’s GIRLBOSS Foundation, for instance. According to Nasty Gal’s website, “Through the Foundation, [the brand’s founder], Sophia Amoruso will award financial grants to women in the worlds of design, fashion, music, and the arts, to help fund them on their way to becoming a GIRLBOSS.” Why not just use that money to pay real designers or manufacture primarily in the US?
Don’t get me wrong. Using less water (as Zara aims to do) and casting in order to observe a more inclusive definition of beauty (a la H&M) is cool. It is important, but you know what’s not cool? Human rights abuses, design piracy and unsafe work environments. Also not cool: trying to hide important issues that stand in the way of safer, more truly sustainable fashion manufacturing. So, next time you see a massive PR campaign about a fast fashion brand’s wonderful efforts, be sure to think twice. It may not be as wonderful as it seems.