How Sustainable Can Fast Fashion Be?

A few weeks back we had a chuckle at Samsung’s Official Sustainability Report, which was delivered in the form of a rap written by Korean artist Mad Clown. The embarrassing result of this collaboration between the worlds of sustainability and hip-hop must have found its way to international fashion retailers H and M, who last week released their own sustainability report – without a rhyme in sight. The question is, can a “fast fashion” company like H and M, whose clothes amass in landfill year on year, ever hope to be sustainable?

H and M, like Samsung, have produced a short video to accompany their report and extol their sustainable virtues. The video makes a series of questionable and often vague claims about the company’s aims. “We want to make conscious fashion choices attractive, available and affordable,” they say, “this is why we have created H and M Conscious.” The video gives the example of one organic cotton t shirt to back up the claim “we are the world’s biggest user of organic cotton.”

This is all very well, and true, with the blessing of the Textile Exchange’s Annual Organic Cotton Report. A company of H and M’s size would not be able to make such a claim without reasonable evidence to support it. However, a little extra scrolling and reading of some eye-poppingly small print indicates that in fact, organic cotton made up just 13.7% of H and M’s cotton usage in 2014.

The company makes claims that it will be using 100% sustainable cotton, including organic cotton, by next year’s sustainability report. However, the diagram they use to illustrate this target also shows that H and M’s proportional use of sustainable cotton (organic or otherwise) has been rising by around 4% at a steady rate each year. Currently their sustainable cotton use is at 21.4%, so this would require a 79.6% rise over the next twelve months. This seems unlikely.

What’s more, they make claims about their use of electricity, citing a figure of 27% of their total electricity usage being renewable over the last 12 months. From 2015, they say, they aim to increase this figure to 100% in all factories, warehouses, stores and offices, but only “where it is possible.” One has to question exactly what this statement means.

One has to wonder how much longer huge multinational companies can get away with flowery claims about sustainability under banners like “Conscious” when in reality they are some of the greatest consumers of products such as cotton. As the largest consumer of cotton in the US, H and M should take note. Although it seems as if they have good intentions, making claims like “Our ultimate goal is create a closed loop for fashion” seem too impressive, too fashionable to be realistic. It remains to be seen whether H and M meet their targets.

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3 thoughts on “How Sustainable Can Fast Fashion Be?

  1. Fashion is an abstract social construct of the most subjective kind. It represents a communications medium, not a product or service. It’s perplexing for a clothing manufacture to present fashion as something exiting a machine — as though their systematic process unequivocally results in the continuous production of fashion. Respectively, these claims are analogous to producing “cool” cars, or naturally sweetened ice-cream — as said by the leaders of margin-based manufacturing — employing sustainable marketing practices of the most subjective kind.

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    1. Hi Drexus,

      I think what you’re saying is true – fashion is merely a concept, and is intangible. Perhaps the term “clothing” might be more appropriate to explain what I mean by fashion in the article.

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      1. Clothing could be easily qualified in this context. However, “affordable” clothing is inherently relative — more so from a globalized perspective, not so much from a sustainable perspective. Affordable how? The entropic model of sociality points to affordability from where we are, unfortunately not from where they are.

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