• The share of eco collections among mass-market’s fashion clothing is not substantial for most retailers. H&M has almost 10% of its collection dedicated to its conscious collection, while Zara has 14% of its collection dedicated to its Join Life sustainable initiative.
• According to Retviews data, the most commonly used fabrics for both regular and sustainable fashion collections are the same: cotton, synthetic fabrics, and viscose.
• Around 352 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce synthetic fabrics. Those fabrics are well-known to be one of the causes of ocean pollution. Yet, it is still one of the main components of eco-collection, after organic cotton.
Sustainable fashion englobes a wide variety of different components, and the fashion industry faces a big issue when it comes to sustainability: there is no standard definition.
“To be fair, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition of sustainability, leaving room for brands to either fall into the greenwashing trap or exploit the vagueness surrounding it. It also allows brands to tout red herrings as progress while concealing problem areas”.
The Business of Fashion
This creates an opportunity for brands to interpret the definition of sustainability whichever way they like. A retailer might define its collection as “sustainable” by using 100% sustainable or environmentally friendly processes and fabrics, as well as generating ethical fashion and being inclusive. At the same time, another one can label it “sustainable” by having a part of its collection made of sustainable materials, without taking into account its whole supply chain.
This raises a couple of questions: what is the reality behind all the sustainability messages? Are companies greenwashing customers?
To know more about the state of sustainability in fashion, download our sustainable report.
What is the share of sustainable articles in Mass-Market fashion?
One would expect the two largest fast-fashion players, Zara and H&M, to hold the highest share of eco or sustainable garments among their collection. It is a fair assumption as they both are signatories of the G7 Sustainable Fashion Pact. The two fashion giants are also among the top consumers of sustainable cotton and have been showcasing and promoting their eco-collection everywhere, from their websites to social media.
However, this is not really the case. Only 14% of the total collection of Zara is part of its Join Life collection, and less than 10% is labeled Conscious by H&M. The share of eco-collection is relatively small compared to what the customer would expect from these two giants. On the other hand, retailers like C&A, which do not actively promote their eco collection, have 30% of their collection dedicated to a more sustainable fashion.
With their sustainable goals, Pact signatures, and sustainable reports, will the two giants be able to meet the customers’ expectations as well as the goals they have set for themselves?
Are the main fabrics of the regular collections different from the eco one?
The main fabrics used in fashion for Premium and Mass-market segments are cotton, synthetic fabrics such as polyester, elastane & nylon, and viscose. These two market segments are quite different in terms of fashion approach and pricing. However, the fabrics they use frequently are not.
It is essential to share with our readers a few numbers about these fabrics.
Cotton is among the most water-intensive crop. To produce 1 kg of cotton, we need 10,000 liters of water. Additionally, the chemicals used to harvest cotton end up damaging the soil and groundwater.
Synthetic fabrics are well-known for their environmental issues as micro-particles of plastic are rejected after each wash in our washing machines and end up entering our rivers, lakes, and oceans, polluting our environment and destroying biodiversity. Moreover, every year, the fashion industry uses 342 million barrels (Ellen MacArthur report) of oil to produce synthetic fabrics.
Lastly, viscose, a low-cost, partially manmade fabric is made from wood pulp, and 33% of the viscose produced in the fashion industry comes from ancient or threatened trees. Deforestation is a serious global environmental problem, and without the awareness among the masses, the fashion industry is contributing to it significantly.
Even after knowing the adverse effects of these fabrics, the disturbing reality is that the most frequently used fabrics for both eco collection and conventional collection are the same.
On top of that, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation in their report “A new textile economy”, the fashion industry produces 53 million tons of fibers each year, and 70% of those fibers end up in landfills or bonfires. This means that we are overproducing our garments. More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling.
H&M Group has reported that in 2019, the group managed to almost only use organic cotton for its garments’ production. However, what does organic cotton mean? It means that less water is needed to produce 1 kg of fabric (around 80% less) and that there are no harmful chemicals used in the process. It seems encouraging, but still, 2,000 liters are needed to produce 1 kg of cotton, which represents only one t-shirt, and we know the fashion industry does not produce a small number of eco-friendly t-shirts.
Also, what is the real share of cotton in the final product that a customer buys? For instance, a cotton t-shirt tends to contain elastane to make it stretchier and more breathable. Therefore, micro-particles will still be rejected by the washing machine at each wash. Sustainable cotton does save water in the production process; however, the micro-particles still result in the contamination of the rivers, lakes, and oceans. Doesn’t it ruin the whole sustainability effort?
What can consumers and retailers do?
It might seem gloomy when we look at these numbers, or if we ask ourselves, are retailers greenwashing the customers. Whether retailers are involved in this practice or not, the worst thing would be to do nothing. By communicating with the consumers, providing more and more information, even if some are only partial efforts, retailers are trying to educate the customers.
However, retailers should invest much more in sustainable fabrics and think beyond that. Changing the whole creation process to include circular fashion and fabrics, adapting the supply chain and thinking sustainability in the complete life cycle of a fabric.
Lectra’s report on sustainability notes that more than 90% of consumers are willing to change and are in favor of more sustainability in the Fashion industry. However, only 3% really understand what it represents. It is the companies’ moral obligation to be transparent about their sustainability efforts and to educate their customers as well.
At the same time, from a buying and merchandising perspective, it is essential for eco collections to be most accurately bought in order to avoid reductions. If the buying level is correct, there will be no underside nor overstock of those garments, and thus, the collection would end up being really sustainable.