Greening the High Street: The Real Deal?
From organic cotton to Fairtrade fabric recent years have seen the high street making an effort to go green. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Sella Oneko investigates
The high street is going green, or at least it seems to be. With organic cotton, recycled fabric and natural dyes making their way into the likes of H&M and Marks & Spencer, preserving the planet is becoming part of mainstream fashion. But could it all be too good to be true? After all, whether it’s poor working conditions or chemical dyes, critics are always having a go at the fashion industry. And the impact of fast fashion on the environment can’t be denied. From the vast amount of water and pesticides used in cotton production to the carbon footprint of transporting garments from China or Bangladesh, the high street and saving the planet don’t always go hand-in-hand.
90 per cent of clothing in the UK is imported, mainly from countries such as India and China. According to DEFRA we buy about two million tonnes of clothes every year, one fifth of which is bought from fast fashion brands such as Primark. Just to top that off, one million tonnes of clothes are thrown away every year, with 50 percent of the total ending up in a landfill. But with Primark’s profits down, consumers seem to be moving away from ultra-cheap, single-season garments. And with greater emphasis being placed on ethics and planet-friendliness by consumers, the high street is finally starting to respond.
The pace might be slow but things are changing. H&M, for instance, has embraced organic cotton and in March launched the Conscious Collection; a capsule collection of pieces made from organic cotton, eco-friendly Tencel and recycled textiles. The clothes are stylish and not much pricier than conventional clothing, and have already garnered a famous fan in the shape of actress Natalie Portman. Additionally H&M has looked into reducing its use of water by encouraging the use of rain water to rinse its garments and it was certified by the EU flower eco-label for controlling the use of harmful chemicals in some of its baby clothing. But H&M’s success begs a question. If the Swedish label can do it, why aren’t the others?
Allana McAspurn of Dutch sustainability NGO, Made-By, argues that while fashion houses do believe that there is a market for ethical fashion, they are experimenting with new tactics because of higher commodity prices rather than any real desire to make things greener. ‘High street brands are feeling the effect of inflationary hikes in raw material prices and the overall rise in production costs,’ she comments. ‘One way of dealing with this is to think of how these costs can be controlled and create efficiencies.’
According to Alex McIntosh of the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, high street labels like H&M are actually struggling to become more eco-friendly, as they are not able to reconcile their ‘sell-more-for-less’ approach with a truly sustainable business strategy. At the moment, he says, fashion is hugely disposable and in order to become truly sustainable, people need to learn the real value of a garment. ‘High street labels often try to market consumerism as a way to happiness but you don’t really need 300 t-shirts in your cupboard. If people bought one high quality t-shirt for £30, they wouldn’t have to buy 10 for £3 each.’
Fashion, according to McIntosh, allows people to buy a piece of clothing emotionally. People respond much more to the heritage and the story behind the clothes. This, he says, is a huge problem for high street labels and is where independent designers who can give their fashion authenticity have an advantage. Unfortunately small-scale designers will never be able to compete with the bulk and price advantage of their giant counterparts. However ethical fashion labels like People Tree have made it into the mainstream. Originally from Japan, the Fairtrade and Soil Association certified label has managed to make its way into Topshop, ASOS and John Lewis. Using 50 per cent organic cotton as well as safe dyes and natural materials, People Tree has managed to shake off the hippie image of ethical clothing and have made it their mission to promote natural and non-polluting apparel. So how do they compete with mainstream fashion labels? According to a People Tree spokesman, the hand production and the buying cycles do tend to be longer than in conventional fashion, which is more sustainable. The real question though, is whether consumers are prepared to give ‘slow fashion’ a chance.