I'm writing this post as another Fashion Revolution Week draws to a close. It's been a very momentous, eye-opening and encouraging week. I've been simultaneously reminded of just how brilliant the sustainable fashion community can be while feeling quite overwhelmed by the scale of issues that the industry is yet to tackle.
It was also the week which saw Fashion Revolution unveil its fifth annual Fashion Transparency Index. The report is a comparative tool which ranks 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers "according to how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts".
The findings weren't all that pleasant. Though there has been a 12% increase in global transparency since 2017, the average brand scored a mere 23%. This is a 2% increase from the 200 brands assessed in 2019. More than half (54%) of the brands scored 20% or less, while 10 brands shockingly scored 0%, including Tom Ford and Pepe Jeans.
What's worse (and has been the topic of many discussions) is that the top spot was taken by the H&M group, who owns brands like & Other Stories and Arket. Scoring 73%, H&M were the only fashion retailer to score higher than 70%.
I know what you're thinking: H&M, that big, ugly brand you're always accusing of some business malpractice?! Yes friends, when I say H&M, I mean that big bundle of greenwashed joy wrapped in labour exploitation and environmental destruction. I was as shocked as you!!
To be sure, Fashion Revolution have stressed that the index is not a shopping guide nor does it evaluate a brand’s ethical or sustainable performance. Rather, its purpose is "to understand how much social and environmental information is shared by the world’s largest brands". It is hoped that this will "incentivise major brands to disclose more credible, comparable ... info each year by leveraging their competitive tendencies". The argument goes that greater transparency allows more brands to be held accountable which eventually leads to systemic change.
But the damage was already done. Countless headlines reading "H&M ranked world's most transparent brand" and "H&M on top" had already reached the masses, circulating rumours that the H&M group are some ethical powerhouse. The news likely incentivised several loyal customers into purchasing from the brand in the name of "sustainability".
As Aja Barber has pointed out, the problem is that mainstream consumers are not equipped with the know-how to tell the 'sustainability' and 'transparency' labels apart. The rising popularity of the sustainability movement has introduced a lot of new terms which can bring about confusion. Many consumers are now facing a language barrier, which has created a popular misconception that the Fashion Transparency Index can be used as an indicator of how sustainable a fashion brand is.
Aja's Instagram post first alerted me to this issue, which states that "In a world where language around #sustainability is often a mystery to consumers who don’t have the tools and the lexicon to decipher where to spend their money, I think this [the transparency label] can be confusing to those who are just looking to shop a little better." Aja has written a brilliant guide to the language of sustainable fashion, which you can read here. I would also highly recommend checking out her Instagram and her Patreon where she constantly shares her wisdom and knowledge.
Of course, transparency is needed more than ever, as the Rana Plaza anniversary and pandemic have shown. In a globalised world, the supply chain has become deeply fractured as cheap, exploitative labour is competitively outsourced. This makes it extremely difficult to trace where our clothes are being made, so a lack of transparency can cost lives.
But transparency has never been a direct metric of sustainability. The Fashion Transparency Index itself recognises this discrepancy. The report found a common trend in which brands publish more about their policies than "their outcomes, results and progress in addressing the social and environmental issues in their supply chain".
For example, only 12 brands (5%) report annual, measurable progress towards paying living wages to workers in their supply chains. Similarly, only 16% of the brands publish annual carbon emissions produced within their supply chains. Meanwhile, though 40% of brands are publishing a list of their first tier manufacturers, only 7% are publishing information on their raw material suppliers.
A quick browse through H&M's sustainability section highlights this pattern. The brand has set themselves the "ambitious" goals of making all of their products from recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and becoming climate positive (whatever that means) by 2040. Not only are these very vague goals but they read like throwaway commitments. Very little is said about what structures and strategy H&M have implemented to achieve this goal nor do they state how they will be monitoring their progress. That's not to mention that these goals are very long-sighted when radical action is needed sooner rather than later.
But when consumers are exposed to misleading media, how are they to know?! Basking in its moment of glory, H&M posted this image across its social media platforms, a post which was riddled with lies. Firstly, H&M claimed to be "the world's most transparent brand", which is a massive stretch considering that the Fashion Transparency Index only analyses 250 of the world's largest fashion brands and retailers. To qualify for the report, brands had to have a minimum turnover of $400m. The result is that thousands of smaller sustainable brands - who are more ethical and transparent than H&M will ever be - simply don't make the list or front-page news.
The second lie could be found in the caption where #sustainability was suspiciously thrown into the mix. Here, H&M were clearly capitalising on customer confusion by again trying to conflate transparency with sustainability. Yes, H&M might list most of its factory suppliers on its website, but that is no indication of the factory conditions or working wages. Being transparent doesn't mean you're ethical because a shit wrapped in a clear bag is still a shit.
H&M's habitual greenwashing did not go amiss in the sustainable fashion community, which proudly flooded the posts with criticism and scrutiny. In response, H&M removed all of its posts without an explanation or apology. Because nothing screams transparency like censoring your critics.
That's because transparency is not synonymous with sustainability or ethics. Transparency can of course be a tool for change but it can equally be a tool for greenwashing. When you are a multi-billion-dollar company with just shy of 5,000 stores worldwide, transparency is never enough. When you're the second largest global clothing retailer, transparency is instead the bare minimum. The H&M group clearly has enough money to pay its workers, invest in sustainable solutions and dramatically scale back production but that's just not what greedy fast fashion corporations do. The reality is that the fast fashion model can never be sustainable.
While we are yet to hear anything from H&M, Fashion Revolution have since addressed the brand's greenwashing antics. The global campaigners are very disappointed in H&M's advertising of the report, stating that "to claim that they are the most transparent brand in the world is misleading and confusing". Speaking to the Guardian, policy director and report author, Sarah Ditty, also recognised that there were obvious “elephant in the room issues” about some of the top performers, including “producing too much” and not doing enough to improve workers’ low wages.
Fashion Revolution went on to clarify that "transparency does not equal sustainability" and they will endeavour to make this even clearer going forward. I'm very excited to see what the next Transparency Index holds. I love what Fashion Revolution do, so it's a great shame that the actions of a misleading, unethical brand is jeopardising their reputation.
For the sake of transparency, I thought I would end this post by listing the many instances that H&M has proven itself to be the opposite of sustainable and ethical over the last ten years. It's probably not an exhaustive list which speaks to the magnitude of the problem. Feel free to send it their way any time they hop back on the greenwashing bandwagon and please share it with your friends!
Introducing '10 years of anything but sustainable and ethical practice by H&M':
H&M entered the decade with controversy, when it was reported that H&M were cutting up all unsold or refunded clothing in one of its New York City stores. This prevented the resale or usage of any overstock at a time when many homeless people were suffering from the bitter winter and recent recession.
Just weeks later, lab analysis revealed that roughly 30% of H&M's certified organic cotton clothing line was cross-contaminated with genetically modified cotton. It was one of a number of fashion chains found guilty of fraudulent marketing.
2010 also marked the debut of H&Ms first annual "Conscious Collection" which features a range of plant-based, beige clothes - think pineapple leather, recycled polyester and orange fibres. The naming of the collection is pretty ironic. I bet the garment workers in their supply chain who barely earn minimum wage might see the collection differently.
Things began to heat up for H&M when nearly 300 garment workers passed out at a Cambodian supplier factory in a single week from poor ventilation and malnutrition. Cambodian workers held a people's tribunal to investigate pay, working hours and the mass faintings.
2011 was also the year when H&M was one of the many brands who refused to sign a detailed safety proposal, as initiated by various Bangladeshi and international labour groups. The proposal was a legally-binding contract between suppliers, customers and unions which granted independent inspectors the power to close down factories that failed to comply with health and safety standards. Despite various factory fires in the Dhaka region, it would take the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 - which killed 1,138 garment workers and injured 2,500 more - before H&M signed an agreement in the form of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
H&M ended the year by coming under fire for using fake, computer-generated models which were superimposed with real models' heads. The virtual bodies were skinny, mostly white figures which perpetuated unrealistic body standards for women to aspire to.
In January, H&M were accused of stealing the work of UK-based artist, Tori LaConsay, without compensation. This formed part of a wider trend in which fashion brands have stolen the intellectual property of indie designers without due credit.
H&M ended the year under pressure by Anti-Slavery International to sever ties with clothing suppliers who were sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, a country notorious for exploiting forced child labour to harvest its cotton.
2013 was a pretty awful year for the retailer. It started in good spirits when H&M launched their renowned global Take Back Scheme in February. Shoppers can simply donate their unwanted clothes in stores which are then processed by I:Collect. Wearable clothes are marketed as second-hand clothing, damaged textiles are repurposed and all other clothes are recycled into insulation material. In 2019, H&M collected 29,005 tonnes of unwanted clothes, up 29% from the previous year. The problem is that shoppers are rewarded with a H&M gift card upon donation which incentivises them to buy back into the fast fashion cycle. This promotes the idea that clothes should be worn a few times, disposed of and then replaced with something new which is driving our throwaway culture.
In May, things went from bad to worse when a Cambodian textile factory that produced for H&M collapsed, injuring 23 workers. In the same month, Beyoncé demanded that H&M remove several photos of her from an advertising campaign after the marketing department allegedly reduced the size of her curves.
In August, H&M were forced to withdraw an offensive faux-leather headdress from its Canadian stores, which formed part of their summer music festival collection. Canadian shoppers accused the brand of culturally misappropriating the native dress of Canadian Aboriginal communities.
The year was rounded off nicely when the brand promised in November that 850,000 of its workers would earn a fair living wage by 2018. This commitment is yet to be fulfilled in 2020. Let me remind you that H&M is a multi-billion-dollar business that is more than capable of paying its workers properly.
In January, H&M were criticised by online customers for using 'medium-sized' models to advertise its plus-sized clothing range. H&M countered that all of the pictured models were wearing at least a UK size 14. This is hardly plus-sized when the average female dress size in the UK is a size 16.
Two months later, H&M had to pull a controversial men's vest which seemingly featured a Star of David with a skull drawn inside it. Critics accused the brand of anti-Semitism, which marked one of the many times the brand has been accused of racial discrimination.
Speaking of racism, H&M were heavily criticised for failing to feature any black models in their South African store opening campaigns. When questioned on Twitter, H&M's reply insinuated that white models convey a more "positive" and "inspiring" image than black models. H&M offered an apology "if [their] message has caused offence", which isn't really an apology in my books.
April marked the inauguration of H&M's World Recycling Week, an event that questionably coincided with Fashion Revolution Week. In an official statement, Fashion Revolution hinted that the campaign was another greenwashed attempt to disguise its own complicity by redirecting attention to its efforts to collect over 1,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing. I don't believe that the brand continued to celebrate World Recycling Week in the following years.
In February, The Guardian reported that children were being employed in Myanmar to make clothes for H&M. They were paid as little as 13p an hour for their labour which is half of the country's legal minimum wage.
Eight months later, H&M were accused of burning 12 tonnes of new, unsold clothing per year. The brand was thought to be using incinerators to destroy clothing as a result of overproduction.
This year was a pretty controversial one, remembered by most for the sale of a green "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" hoodie, as modelled by a young black boy on their website. Many Twitter critics, especially from the United States, called the image racist for perpetuating a historic, racist insult. The controversy saw the likes of The Weekend and G-Eazy publicly boycott and end their partnerships with the brand. H&M were forced into removing the hoodie and issuing an apology. Following these allegations of racism, many South African branches were looted, which saw some shops temporarily close. The mother of the young model denied allegations that the hoodie was racist.
In July, H&M docked the pay and suspended some of its union staff across three New Zealand stores after they were found wearing 'Living Wage' stickers to support their wage claims.
The fashion retailer unveiled plans in January to pilot a three-month clothing rental scheme in Sweden. The scheme is still running in its recently reopened Stockholm flagship branch which saw H&M tap into a billion-dollar market industry. I have found several issues with the scheme. The first is that it the scheme is simply a marketing ploy designed for profit. I would have personally expected H&M to trial the scheme at several locations if they were really committed to seeing its success. The second issue is that the quality of H&M clothes is not built to last, which raises concerns about where discarded clothes will end up. My third concern is about where the money for the scheme is being reinvested. You can read more of my thoughts on this topic here.
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