5 brands bringing more sustainable fashion to the mainstream

28 March 2016

Sustainable fashion on the high street

There is a growing range of ethical niche fashion labels, and a dynamic world of ethical fashion bloggers writing about them. But what about the millions of people whose habits take them predominantly to mainstream stores? Is the high street an ethical desert, or are there places that may serve as the first step on the journey towards more sustainable buying habits. 

It’s an important question, because the research tells us that a large number of shoppers are put off by dreadfully earnest products, wearing their ethics large for all to see.

Sure, it would be great if we could change those attitudes, but that happens one step at a time. So mainstream brands that have credibility with the target audience can make a huge difference if they can show that caring about where your clothes came from doesn’t have to be unsexy and boring.

Here are five brands that are making the attempt.

H&M Conscious Clothes
Photo: H&M

H&M

H&M declares that it has set itself the challenge of “making fashion sustainable and making sustainability fashionable”. That has led to the creation of ‘H&M Conscious’, products that aim for a better ethical and environmental footprint.

Its work in this area has made H&M the number one user of certified organic cotton in the world, with a goal to get to 100% organic by 2020. It uses other materials as well, such as organic hemp and recycled wool. 

In answer to the inevitable criticism that organic cotton that makes its way to a landfill site is not much more sustainable than any other kind, the company has created a garment collecting programme, which will feed into a reuse / recycle process. The company has said it will use money for research projects on how old textiles can be turned into new fibres.

H&M has gone further than most others in being highly visible in its creation of an explicitly sustainable brand. This inevitably leads to campaigners accusing it of ‘green-washing’, but they ignore the fact that the company’s customers are not demanding this. In fact, the company is taking a risk in pushing this message to them. Every leading company can tell the same story – you can be one step ahead of your customers, but get too far ahead of them, and you’ll fail.

Zara organic cotton shirt
Zara organic cotton top

Zara

Zara also supports the use of organic cotton in some of its clothes, and is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, with a code of conduct that prohibits the use of forced or child labour in its supply chain. So, for instance, it boycotts the use of Uzbek cotton, given the country’s notorious practices in forced labour in cotton production. It was the best rating clothing company in Ethical Consumer’s supply chain management category.

It also aims to reduce its own energy use, and has started to introduce the use of biodiesel for its fleet of lorries.

Monsoon clothing
Image: Monsoon

Monsoon

Monsoon was a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, so its commitment to fair fashion is a longstanding one. It bases its code of conduct on the ETI standards, and works with suppliers to meet them while also having an active programme of audits and unannounced visits.

It is committed to animal welfare. It doesn’t sell real fur, and will only use leather that is produced as a by-product of the meat industry. It has a range of requirements for other animal products relating to the conditions in which animals must be kept.

On sustainability, Monsoon supports a programme to help Indian cotton farmers to convert to organic production, and sponsors ethical designers for London Fashion Week. It has a programme of reducing energy use at its stores, and reducing waste and packaging.

Marks & Spencer
Image: Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer

Ethical Consumer magazine named Marks & Spencer the most ethical high street fashion retailer, recognising the wide-ranging nature of its initiatives on sustainable materials, removal of harmful chemicals and fairer trade.

Under its all-encompassing ‘Plan A’ umbrella, M&S has trained half a million workers on employment rights, healthcare and financial literacy and has assessed every supplier factory. It carried out anonymous surveys of workers to root out any issues that haven’t been visible during formal audits.

Unlike some, M&S has been prepared to put its money where its rhetoric is. It has created a buying tool that calculates a living wage which is factored into the prices it pays to factories in countries such as Bangladesh. Pilot factories showed benefits all round, as worker absenteeism dropped by 85 percent and productivity increased.

And Marks & Spencer originally pioneered the scheme to take back used clothes, now adopted by H&M.

Fat Face clothes
Image: Fat Face

Fat Face

Fat Face operates a comprehensive set of requirements on suppliers covering fair remuneration for workers, no child or forced labour, good health and safety practices and so on. It is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and was awarded ‘Achiever’ status in 2011 for its rate of improvement.

The Good Shopping Guide gave the company a high Ethical Company Index rating of 85, saying this was because of their top ratings across the board for the treatment of people.

What’s the story here?

The truth is that none of these companies are taking the steps towards better practices because of customer demand. Although occasionally some trigger comes along, usually in the form of a TV documentary or a high profile incident, generally the customers who shop at these stores don’t want to wallow in the impact of the fashion industry. 

That’s why those that make sustainability a visible feature, such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, do so on a softly-softly basis. They are trying to reassure their customers that they care about these things without pushing themselves into a preachy place.

Ultimately, of course, the big challenge is that we currently have a mindset where consuming more and more ‘stuff’ is how we define progress. How do you change that culture? Standing on an island of purity yelling at everyone to deny themselves things they want has a particularly poor track record of success.

So mainstream brands making products better, beginning to build infrastructure for taking back old garments, and perhaps as a next step making durability a more commonly celebrated feature – this could be a real part of mainstreaming a different approach to the things we currently take for granted.