Last week I found myself wandering through the racks of my local H&M, checking out the “H&M Conscious” display, which showcased phrases like ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical’. I checked the inside of the shirt closest to me and, as expected, found that this garment was made in Cambodia.
I travelled to Cambodia myself last year and saw first hand how deeply impoverished the nation was. Cambodia is a country especially vulnerable to exploitation by western industry in light of the horrific genocide the country faced at the hands of their own leader, short decades ago.
I’ve touched on the concept of Fast Fashion in previous posts, but this discovery at my local mall recently drove me to re-think about how susceptible we as consumers are to greenwashing (misinformation propagated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image). Are H&M and similar brands trying to greenwash our susceptible little consumer minds into thinking we’re actually doing something GOOD by purchasing their clothes, therefore supporting fast fashion?! Is there truly any conscience to this conscious façade?
Some facts about fast fashion:
The clothes are pretty shit
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I don’t indulge in some cheap cute clothes for the odd summer festival or trip with friends, but generally, I believe in investing in pieces that will last. I worked at a store called Sirens for 3 years in my teens and I’ll be the first to tell you, cheap clothing stores profit from quantity, far beyond quality. Big brands like H&M and Forever 21 pump out hundreds of millions of clothing pieces per year, and they simply are NOT built to last.
Beading and sequins usually = child labour
Check out the documentary The True Cost on Netflix if you’d like to peek inside the horrendous world of factory workers in places like Cambodia and really try to grasp the fact that the clothes that you buy from these stores are made by real people across the planet. Small, intricate detailing like beading and sequins are especially time consuming and require delicate hands like that of a child. Their efforts are often uncompensated.
You’re supposed to feel out of style
Traditionally, fashion houses have produced only a few separate collections each year, releasing just prior to changing weather season and displaying the latest trends in fashion and pushing the boundaries of wearable art. Since the rise of fast fashion and uber-cheap alternatives, literally dozens of quick and (in my opinion, usually careless and tacky) collections can be released each year by a single brand, resulting in an ever-competitive marketplace for new products and of course, a quickly out-of-date wardrobe for the average person.
The clothes are toxic
2 years ago the Center for Environmental Health released a report that identified Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Wet Seals as brands that carried accessories with disturbingly high levels of lead. Lead is extremely toxic to humans, and lead poisoning is a serious environmental health problem in the United States, causing kidney damage, learning disabilities in children, behaviour problems and MUCH more.
This isn't an isolated incident either. Fast fashion is predicated on the model of CHEAP clothes, and a LOT of them. This obviously means that cheap (often harmful) materials are used, accompanied by shotty safety precautions and poor worksmanship.
It's brutal on the environment
So those clothes that are being sold to us with levels of toxic chemicals high enough to actually make us sick? They make the environment sick too. Fast Fashion is said to be the second dirtiest industry on earth - second only to oil.
Greenpeace came out with an interesting rating system to rate brands based on their acknowledgment and action (or inaction) on the problem of pollution and human harm from chemicals in their clothing. Here we have Detox Leaders, Greenwashers, and Losers:
Detox Leaders have made going green a priority, have credible timelines for dropping toxic chemicals, and have implemented real change.
• United Colors of Benetton
• G-Star Raw
• Inditex (includes Zara)
• Levi Strauss & Co.
• Limited Brands
• Marks & Spencer
• Uniqlo (Fast Retailing)
Greenwashers talk the talk, but haven’t gone much further than that.
• Nike, Inc
Detox Losers refuse to take responsibility for their toxic practices and have made no commitment to change.
• Georgio Armani
• Only The Brave (including brands Diesel and Viktor & Rolf)
• Dolce & Gabbana
• Gap Inc.
• LVMH Group/Christian Dior Couture (including brands Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and Dior)
• PvH (including brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger)
Try to always be a conscious consumer, and always question the label.