Fast fashion brands are very good at a few things, self-preservation is one of them. Amidst increased awareness about their ugly business models (thanks, in part, to movies like The True Cost), these retailers are being forced to work overtime to divert attention from the less-than-attractive byproducts of their massive retail empires.
For H&M, this has taken the form of an array of recycling initiatives, including a collaboration with singer, MIA, and its long-standing “Conscious Collection." More recently, this looks like an embrace of diversity. For its Fall/Winter 2016 runway show, for instance, 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 Beha Erichsen, Natasha Poly, and again, Amber Valetta.
Now consider Zara. The Spanish fast fashion giant recently opened a brand-new flagship in the heart of Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. According to a press release from the brand: “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 it is called “greenwashing.”
The latest to incorporate a green initiative? Mango. The Spanish company "has taken a new step towards making sustainability a major component of its business model by launching a new collection called Mango Committed. The 45-piece collection (comprising 25 women's and 20 men's styles) launches online and in store this week," according to British Vogue.
“The sustainable fabrics used for this collection such as organic cotton and recycled polyester have international certificates, such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) or GRS (Global Recycled Standard) among others," says Mango's communications director Guillermo Corominas. "Our Corporate Social Responsibility department has been working closely with the design team to ensure that the results meet the level of quality and sustainability planned for this collection.”
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 of the human rights abuses and worker safety threats associated with the manufacturing of its garments and accessories. 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 ... and again!). 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. (Note: Last year, while H&M was busy promoting its Conscious Collection, a massive fire occurred at a Bangladeshi sweater factory that serves as one if its suppliers).
In short, fast fashion is an industry founded upon low wages, poor worker standards, chemicals and waste, and design piracy. In order to distract from 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. (Here is a look inside H&M's precarious global supply chain). A couple of years 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 vow to discontinue the use of angora wool, for instance. Or, even better yet, its GIRLBOSS Foundation. 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.” Reconcile that, if you will, with the 3+ lawsuits that have been filed against the company for discriminating against women.
Now, do not 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 is 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, think critically for a moment. It may not be as wonderful as it seems.