Can you trust the high street brands on sustainability?
As people become more and more interested in shopping sustainably, there has been a rise in high street fashion brands making sustainability claims. But many of these shops have a terrible track record when it comes to the environment and human rights—so how do you know whether you can trust what they’re saying?
What claims are brands making?
Typically, high street brands looking to lure in more conscious consumers will bring out a specific sustainable range.
A well-known example is H&M’s “Conscious” range, which they describe as “sustainable style”. In a similar vein, high street giant Zara has its “Join Life” range, containing “garments produced using processes and raw materials that help us to reduce our impact.”
Online retailers are joining in too. ASOS describes its “Responsible Edit” as “your one-stop home for all the environmentally conscious clothing, accessories and living items at ASOS”, while Boohoo’s “For the Future” range uses recycled materials so that customers can “do their bit for the environment”.
Seeing the word “sustainable” or “conscious” on a clothing label or website is likely to evoke a positive feeling and make people more inclined to buy.
However, when companies use this language and don’t have the environmental policies to back it up, that’s greenwashing.
Check the facts
The first issue for conscious consumers is the fact that there is no universal standard for what “sustainable” actually means. Just because these ranges may be more sustainable than the other collections sold by these brands, doesn’t mean that the standards are particularly high.
It’s important to check the facts behind the claims and see what these brands actually mean when they use language such as “sustainable” and “conscious”.
On H&M’s website, it states that garments in their Conscious collection “contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.” This, of course, means that the other 50% doesn’t have to be sustainable materials.
Lack of facts and statistics is another issue. With the other brands mentioned above, it is difficult to find any numbers or concrete information about what makes the collections sustainable.
When compared to a sustainable brand such as People Tree, who state that they “only use natural fibres or fibres that follow closed loop processes, such as Lenzing certified TENCELTM”, as part of a detailed environmental policy, it becomes clear that the claims of high street brands usually aren’t ambitious or transparent enough.
Furthermore, the focus is usually on the materials used in their garments—but that’s only one part of the sustainability puzzle.
Look at the bigger picture
Sustainability in fashion is about much more than just materials. The use of fossil fuels to manufacture garments, transport of clothes around the world, overproduction, overconsumption and huge amounts of waste are all problematic aspects of the fashion industry.
High street and online clothing brands like those mentioned above are the epitome of fast fashion. While they are still producing vast amounts of cheap clothing, fuelling overconsumption and wastage, and failing to address issues in their supply chains, they can never achieve any meaningful level of sustainability.
The fact that they need dedicated sustainable ranges highlights that the rest of what they sell, which makes up the majority of their business, is unsustainable.
New greenwashing legislation on the horizon
The rise in greenwashing hasn’t gone unnoticed. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority are currently investigating the kind of false and misleading environmental claims that businesses make, with a view to setting out new guidance to help tackle the issue.
The rules are likely to ban companies from making vague claims, such as describing products as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” and instead demand more specific descriptions. Even using unsustainable packaging that is made to look as though it is eco-friendly (through colours and imagery, for example) could be breaking the new rules.
Also, to combat something called “The Halo Effect” where a person or company can be judged as positive overall due to one positive aspect, in future, brands may also have to state what they are not doing sustainably alongside any promotion of what they are doing.
Hopefully, this will make it easier for shoppers to choose the most sustainable products.
While we’re still waiting for stricter greenwashing regulations and enforcement, it’s important to stay vigilant and question sustainability claims when you see them.
As well as looking at what eco-certifications a company has, a good way to know which brands to pick is to use 3rd party sources of information. For example, Good On You app and Ethical Consumer Magazine both independently rank companies on a range of ethical criteria.
We set up Care What You Wear because we wanted to make it easier for conscious consumers to find ethical and sustainable clothing. All the brands on our website have well documented practices on sustainability and are transparent when it comes to their impact on the planet.