Sustainability on the High Street

I’m in a number of groups on Facebook about Zero Waste and Sustainable living and in one of them last week, someone posted an article about a machine the global brand, H&M, have that takes old or unwanted knitwear, unravels it and makes it into something else. The holy grail of reducing waste – remanufacturing old into new.

Recently, as part of the course I’m doing on sustainable fashion, I’ve looked at H&M’s global policies and, I have to say, I’ve been impressed. To the point where it has encouraged me to shop there and with their sister brands, Cos, Arket, & Other Stories.

I commented about this on the post and there were a number of responses saying how H&M are famous for greenwashing and, as a cheap fast fashion chain, they are the opposite of ethical and sustainable. This made me really think.

As a clothing brand, I face a dilemma. Ultimately, the most sustainable thing I could do is close the company – stop buying fabric and making clothes. But would this reduce demand? Probably not. Consumers would just shop elsewhere, which may or may not be more or less sustainable.

Since we only use organic cotton and we manufacture in the UK, I need to convince my customers to buy from me, instead of less ethical sources, as this will shift the industry. It’s all about power and influence. I have the power to choose how and where my clothes are made and my customers have the power to choose whether or not to buy from me.

H&M is a global brand and they have a significant power and influence in the industry. I haven’t audited their company or their policies, and no doubt there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know is that they use their influence for good. They have worked to improve standards and working conditions and while I’m sure there’s still a way to go, all change is good.

For those not familiar with the fashion industry, you need to understand that a garment manufacturing factory will work with multiple brands. And every brand will work with many different factories. Partly because different factories will specialise in different fabrics or products, but it’s also good business sense for risk management and business continuity.

Brands will normally have a code of conduct that factories and suppliers will sign up to. This will likely cover employment rights, pay, working conditions etc… Note that the factory is working with a numbers of brands so may have multiple codes of conduct to adhere to (let’s hope they’re all similar, or it’s going to get complicated!). Sometimes brands will collaborate to have even more influence in the industry.

If they have enough buying power, the brand will then visit and audit the factory to ensure they are holding up their side of the deal. If they are not, I would have assumed the brand would cease doing business with the factory but, much like consumers buying from elsewhere, the factory will just fill the order book with another brand who maybe won’t be as picky.

The way to change the industry is actually for the brand to continue working with the factory, but to explain to them why workers’ rights, decent pay, complying with health and safety, is actually better for everyone. And to support them through change. Including agreeing to pay more for a product if that money is being used to pay workers more, or pay for sick leave or maternity pay.

Walking away does nothing. So yes, H&M is still a fast fashion brand, but if they stopped, would that change anything? Probably not. Consumers would just shop elsewhere.

So sometimes, it’s not about what’s the best option, it’s about what’s the least worst option. It’s about how we drive change in the industry and everyone needs to use their power. Consumers have the power to choose which brand to buy from and how much to buy. Changing your behaviour and how you spend your money, will change what the brands make and sell. And the brands need to work with the suppliers and factories to make positive changes.

Is it the perfect solution? Of course not, nothing ever is. But if we all do our best, it will get better.

For a more informed and eloquent take on ethics and fair labour in a globalised market - this is a good one to watch

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