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Op-Ed | Sustainable or Superficial?

Fashion’s failure to move beyond the most easily achievable — and easily marketable — sustainability issues puts it behind other sectors, argues Lucy Siegle.
M.I.A stars in "Rewear It," the campaign video for H&M's World Recycle Week 2016 | Source: H&M
By
  • Lucy Siegle

LONDON, United Kingdom — April 24 marks three years since one of the world's worst industrial disasters, when 1,134 people — predominantly female garment workers — lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Paza complex in the Savar region of Dhaka, Bangladesh. As we edge toward that grim anniversary, the question I keep being asked is: "What has changed?" I wish I had a better answer than "not much."

I suspect what most of us mean by that question is “Which brands are now sufficiently clean for me to buy without feeling guilty?” We are, after all, children of the fast fashion revolution, and breaking away from this phenomenon seems impossible.

But while we’re not short on innovations claiming to be part of the solution to what are politely known as “challenges” within the fashion system, what we’re desperately short of is substantive change.

Almost all the emphasis has been put on brands to lead the transition to a clean, safe, equitable industry. But are they up to the job? Most brands have concentrated on the most easily achievable and easily marketable issues: detoxifying the cotton supply, using non-toxic dyes, or recycling unwanted clothes. This sort of stuff was perhaps impressive 10 years ago, but post-Rana Plaza, adds up to little more than giving the rag trade a light dusting. What's needed is a courageous re-imagining of a flawed business model and supply chain.

This approach also makes for some particularly weird marketing strategies. I haven't been shy about my distaste for World Recycle Week, launched by H&M — a brand that poses as a leader in recycling, while pursuing growth based on ever-increasing consumption of clothes. Meanwhile, Labour Behind the Label and the Campaign for Clean Clothes have highlighted how, three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?

Three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?

In fact, I’m a big cheerleader for sustainability marketing. When supply chain reform is deep and authentic, green marketing can activate systemic change, and communicating these inspiring stories could be the rocket fuel we need to transition to sustainable consumption.

I also believe we’re about to see a revolution across sectors, driven by an emergent aspirational class of consumers who want to be part of something bigger than just the product. They’re looking for brands that can be leaders, and they’ll sniff out the inauthentic in a heartbeat.

Some fashion brands get this, like Honest, which tells consumers exactly how much it costs to sew on each button; Nudie jeans, which pays factory workers a living wage; or Patagonia, whose latest Worn Wear Tour lets customers bring broken apparel, irrespective of brand, to its mending vans, decoupling the apparel industry from disposability in an authentic way. Sadly, we don’t see much of this percolating into the mainstream, where sustainability marketing is still used to distract from reputational problems and where everything must come second to flogging trends at increasing volume and pace.

In my opinion, this is a crisis. Mainstream fashion is dogged by a paucity of ideas and a failure to commit to deep sustainability and activate real change.

We know this type of change is doable, because we see it happening in other sectors. It requires a greater evaluation of the supply chain and a lot of investment, and is a slow process — but it is doable.

Fashion is not taking the opportunity to reform and we are starting to see a noticeable lag as it falls behind other industries, like tea and fish. Both of these sectors have supply chains with endemic problems, which big brands have taken action to sort out. Both are showing more innovation, better sustainability strategies and activating greater systemic change than fashion. That’s tea and fish eclipsing fashion, an industry world-famous for dynamism and creativity. Tea and fish. I think that’s embarrassing.

Lucy Siegle is a journalist and author focusing on environmental issues.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon