Before we begin, let’s get one thing straight: I wholeheartedly believe that fast fashion giants H&M and Zara are to blame for our throwaway clothing culture, but I also applaud them for trying to change. Yes, their eco-friendly collections are tiny compared to the rest of their assortments, but they have to start somewhere and a small step forward is still a step.
That being said, if a brand or retailer is going to pump marketing dollars into promoting its more ethical offering and touting its transparency, why not say more than simply throwing around buzzwords like “environmentally friendly,” “organic” and “natural”? And are these collections produced instead of a selection of less sustainable threads or in addition to?
Last month, Spanish retailer Mango announced the launch of its first-ever sustainable collection: Mango Committed, an assortment of men’s and women’s pieces manufactured in Portugal, Turkey and Morocco, using organic and recycled cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel and dyed with environmentally friendly inks.
That’s all well and good but Mango doesn’t say much more, like where that organic cotton comes from, or whether the recycled polyester is made from post-consumer PET bottles, or what exactly makes those inks environmentally friendly. Has the average shopper even heard of Tencel? Another missed opportunity: explaining how the materials used to make Mango Committed help reduce the retailer’s environmental impacts.
Inditex-owned Zara released its Join Life clothing collection last September, comprising pieces made of organic cotton, Better Cotton and Tencel, as well as recycled fabrics. Unlike Mango, Zara’s website explains why each of these materials is considered more sustainable than conventional fabrics, both on product pages and in a dedicated Join Life section.
In order for a product to be included in the collection, it must satisfy Inditex’s internal “Right to Wear” sustainability standard regarding raw materials and the use of water-saving technologies such as low liquor dyeing machines or spun dyeing. However, as Ecouterre pointed out, “sustainable” becomes a debatable term when you churn out more than a billion units of clothing in a single year.
The Ethisphere Institute, an organisation that defines and measures corporate ethical standards, named H&M one of the world’s most ethical companies for the seventh straight year on Monday. And in all fairness, the Swedish retailer is doing its darndest to position itself as one.
Across all of H&M’s product ranges, 20 percent are now made from more sustainable materials, and it’s one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester and one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton. The latest Conscious collection, launching online and in 160 stores worldwide on Apr. 20, will include kids’ pieces for the first time. It’s also collected more than 40,000 tonnes of clothing since first launching its worldwide Garment Collecting initiative in 2013, some of which has wound up in its Close the Loop collections made with recycled textile fibres.
But a lot of this information is stowed away in its corporate sustainability reports and press releases. Yes, Conscious products labeled with a green hangtag are available in H&M stores and online throughout the year, as well as themed Conscious collections that get their own special section and marketing push, but are they doing enough to inform shoppers about why those pieces have added sustainability value?
On its e-commerce site, for instance, the description of a blouse tagged with a green Conscious label simply says that it was made partly from recycled polyester. When I dug a little deeper (into the sustainability section of the corporate website), I discovered that any product carrying a Conscious tag is made of at least 50 percent independently certified materials such as organic, recycled or other more sustainable fabrics. So while someone who's done their homework may be aware of those green tags and what they mean, even using them as a sort of roadmap to help them shop, most people likely don't.
At the end of the day, anything that encourages shoppers to make better choices is a good thing in my book. But it’s up to brands and retailers to put that message out there and help condition consumers to care—and it’s going to take more than a green label to do that.