Who gets to define sustainability?

Why the gatekeepers need to pass the mic.

Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. If you enjoy this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running! 💌

H&M have been making the headlines lately.

Correction: they always seem to be in the news. I often joke that I made my career on slagging off H&M for 2+ years. In my defence, they won’t stop giving me endless reasons to do so. Despite their greenwashed campaigns, various labour scandals and vague industry goals, H&M always find a way to centre themselves in the sustainability conversation. And frankly, I’m sick of it.

Take this exclusive Vogue interview with H&M’s new CEO, Helena Helmersson, for example. Here, the sustainability discussion is repeatedly skewed towards planetary impact, towards H&M’s targets of “achieving 100 per cent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030, along with the ambitious goal of becoming climate positive (?) by 2040”. Or focus is given to H&M’s “Conscious collection” which is “currently made from at least 50 per cent sustainably sourced materials”. Though, as the article reminds us, “the brand doesn’t currently give any specific details on the sustainable materials that each product contains”.

Yet they are still lauded as a transparent brand, pointing to this year’s Fashion Transparency Index which saw H&M come out on top. What isn’t mentioned is that H&M used this score to misleadingly market themselves as “the most transparent brand in the world”, a stretch considering only 250 of the globe’s largest fashion brands and retailers were comparatively assessed. And let’s not forget that while transparency is a crucial first step, it does not guarantee ethical or sustainable practice. A shit wrapped in a clear bag is still a shit.

Attempt is also made to skirt around the issue of overproduction. Helmersson is keen to move towards a fully circular model, though this is a way off yet. She wants to “decouple growth and production of garments from the use of natural resources”, adding that the group is addressing overproduction. To achieve this, the fast fashion giant is working to better forecast customer demand to reduce unnecessary volumes. What this omits is the role H&M’s marketing plays in promoting overconsumption. In other words, they create a huge part of the demand for their products themselves.

Where garment workers are discussed, the conversation feels flat and disingenuous. Sure, H&M list their factory suppliers on their website but nothing is said about how much their workers are paid. On this note, Helmersson praises the retailer’s Living Wage Initiative of 2013 which promised to pay 850,000 garment workers in their supply chain a living wage by 2018. There is no evidence to suggest that this pledge was ever fulfilled. Who is blamed for this? The supplier factories, of course. “We can’t set the wages ourselves, since we work with suppliers who employ the workers”, pleads Helmersson". Union organiser, Andrew TS, disagrees: “whatever brands demand, suppliers do. This is shameful deceit to cover up their vicious exploitation”.

In the same month this interview was published, H&M were hit with a record-breaking GDPR fine over illegal employee surveillance in Germany. Less than three weeks later, thousands of H&M garment labels were found dumped and partially buried in the Wetahirakanda Nature Reserve. The brand also launched a novelty instore recycling scheme this month. As Ruth MacGilp notes, one-off circularity schemes achieve very little without “a considerable reduction in resource use, and most importantly, prioritising the empowerment of marginalised people throughout the supply chain”.

The above examples are just three of many and I previously curated a 10-year timeline dedicated to H&M’s malpractice. Why then has one of the worst fast fashion offenders been allowed to define the sustainability agenda for so long?! There are hundreds of brands out there that are doing sustainability the right way but it is H&M who take up so much space as “sustainability pioneers”.

H&M’s CEO was also one of the panellists at this year’s first virtual Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit. Again, she talked endlessly about circularity and said very little about overproduction. The other big elephant in the room was the omission of the garment workers’ voice. Not a single labour organisation or trade union was represented in these discussions. Instead, fast fashion executives gave each other a pat on the back for “covering up industrial homicide and climate crisis”. Instead, the event was sponsored by Bestseller and Li+Fung, two brands who are yet to #PayUp. Where is the accountability?

The Summit pondered on the issue of accountability by providing the first yearly update on the Fashion Pact - “an unlikely alliance of fashion giants including Chanel, Hermès, Inditex and H&M [who have] agreed to a new set of climate commitments”. But, as Sarah Kent argues, self-regulation and self-policing is not an effective accountability tool. While roughly a third of signatories already source 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources, few have made progress in reducing their overall environmental footprint. Clearly, we need industry-wide legislation.

Writing on behalf on the Clean Clothes Campaign, Ilana Winterstein hits the nail on the head when she writes “talk of sustainability is hollow until fashion brands pay their workers”. That, for me, is the crux of the problem. It’s all well and good H&M setting vague targets when we need radical action now or the signatories of the Fashion Pact seeking to reduce their plastic waste, but that misses a vital part of the equation. Sustainability isn’t just about about reducing pollution and waste. It’s not just about the planet; it’s about the people too, if not more. Sustainability has social meaning in that it must sustain life, be it through encouraging biodiversity or enriching the livelihood of garment workers.

Because what are you sustaining if it’s not the wellbeing of the people behind your clothes?! As long as we let the same offenders gatekeep the sustainability conversation, this crucial truth will remain untold.

In other news…

Missguided attempted to capitalise on World Mental Health Day in a now deleted, tasteless tweet. The same brand that feigned solidarity with BLM was again seen trying to performatively cash in on another social cause. If that Inside Missguided doc is anything to go by, their HQ is a toxic environment that must have a huge knock-on effect on their employers’ self esteem. Not to mention that the exploitative fast fashion model - which has seen cotton farmer suicide rates soar and millions of women of colour trapped in poverty wages - hugely damages the livelihood and mentality of the most vulnerable throughout the supply chain. They only need to look a lot closer to home to see how they exacerbate the mental health crisis. Talk about misguided.

It’s spooky season but the really scary thing about Halloween is how much plastic waste will be produced. In 2018, US consumers spent $6.9 billion on Halloween - half of which went on costumes that were likely worn once. Across the pond, it was predicted that UK Halloween celebrations generated 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2019 alone. What’s more, while polyester makes up around 60% of clothes produced worldwide, that number goes up to 83% among Halloween costumes on the high street. Though lockdown restrictions may limit unnecessary Halloween purchases, many will still be celebrating the holiday in some form. And from what I’ve seen, stores are still selling a nauseous amount of decorations and costumes which begs the question: where will unsold stock end up? This year, my housemates and I will be celebrating indoors with pumpkin carving, classic films and some Halloween tunes. I (successfully) challenged myself to source a costume entirely secondhand, while my housemates are incorporating thrifted and old garments into theirs (proud friend moment).

The question of consumer responsibility is one that I find myself often returning to. In fact, I wrote a whole newsletter on it. Finding the balance between “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism" and excusing consumer inaction is a tough one. While I believe in the accumulative power of individual change, I recognise that the power for real change lies with governments and brands. I’m not the only one wrestling with these thoughts. I loved this nuanced long read by Elizabeth Cline on making peace with being an “unethical consumer”. I also echo Sian Conway’s call to start thinking of ourselves as citizens over consumers - “collective political action can and does lead to systemic change”.

I can be really bad at remembering to plug my own work so here’s what I’ve been up to lately! I curated an ethical underwear edit featuring some gorgeous, sustainable pieces. Writing this made me realise how lacking size inclusivity is in the ethical lingerie department, so I would definitely recommend Lara Intimates for all my plus-size babes. I questioned whether deadstock was ever really destined for landfill and if it’s as sustainable as brands want you to think. I had an absolute ball writing this advice piece on overcoming fashion FOMO for one of my favourite brands Birdsong. Funnily enough, I first connected with one of the co-founders, Sophie, after she kindly reposted the blog post that inspired this newsletter, so perhaps constantly shitting on H&M does pay off! I’ve also been writing some blog posts for sustainable label Jackie Lutze, including this comprehensive vegan beauty guide.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is collective bargaining?

Today I’m turning to the Condé Nast x Centre for Sustainable Fashion Sustainable Fashion Glossary which is a comprehensive reference tool for understanding key terms in the industry. They define collective bargaining as:

“a process that allows workers (usually represented by trade unions) and employers to negotiate agreements on working conditions, wages, benefits, and other aspects of fair employment. Collective bargaining is underpinned by the fundamental human right to freedom of peaceful assembly and, according to the International Labour Organization, countries with established collective bargaining procedures have more equal wages, fewer protracted disputes, and fairer employment relationships. Despite this, a significant proportion of current fashion production takes place in countries that have been known to either directly or indirectly restrict workers’ right to organize and speak up to improve their often appalling working arrangements. Examples include China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and India.”

What I take away from this is that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right. Garment workers have a right to unionise. They have a right to work in a trusting, safe environment where they can raise concerns without fear of being reprimanded. They have a right to have their voice heard at the Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit. Garment workers have a right to shape the future of fashion innovation and legislation. Collective bargaining starts on the factory floor, but it needs to be implemented across the entire supply chain.

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