Can the high street *ever* be sustainable? GLAMOUR investigates...

Isn’t it time we all demanded more?

07 Feb 2019

My shopping habits have been known to look something like this: 1. Spot an influencer I follow on Instagram wearing the high street’s latest cult dress. 2. Swipe. Click. Buy. 3. 12 hours later I’m wearing it, maybe even posting about it (if I love it enough). But within a few weeks, it’s in a slightly crumpled heap in my wardrobe, forgotten – at least for the time being. But it doesn’t really matter, because it only cost £35.

That’s the joy of high street fashion isn’t it? Great designs, hot trends, non-stop new collections and affordable prices. You don’t have to spend hundreds, or thousands of pounds to be ‘in style’. And while, as a former magazine editor, I have splurged over the years on a few HUGE items (let’s not talk about that #oldceline coat), when it comes to a micro trend that I probably won’t embrace long-term – enter the bumbag – it’s to the high street I turn. My rationale? It’s easy, fun and if I don’t like it, it didn’t cost much, so who cares. Right? Wrong.

Because more people than ever do – and for good reason. According to statistics from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, 83% of millennials today would boycott a brand for ethical reasons and, according to GLAMOUR’S 2019 activism survey, 82% of readers would never wear fur. In a huge shift for the retail industry, how ethically a company behaves is almost more important these days than the clothes they make. Make a mistake, and millennials and Gen Z will take their money elsewhere.

This was all brought into stark relief by the recent revelations that £19.40 #IWANNABEASPICEGIRL t-shirts that the band had collaborated on to raise money for Comic Relief were being made in a Bangladesh factory paying their workers just 35p an hour – less than half the estimated living wage in the country. A Guardian investigation uncovered allegations including employees being made to work 16-hour days and being subject to verbal abuse. The reason this story has sparked even wider debate? The factory in question also produced garments for high street stores including Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Mothercare.

And last week, the environmental audit committee named and shamed six high street retailers including Amazon, JD Sports and Boohoo for their lack of engagement in sustainability and ethical treatment of workers.

Simply put – are our clothes so low cost because the people who make them are paying such a high cost? In dignity, in poverty and in their basic human rights. While a spokesman for the Spice Girls said they were “deeply shocked and appalled” and would personally fund an investigation into the factory’s working conditions, Comic Relief said the charity was “shocked and concerned” and Mothercare, M&S and Tesco all confirmed that they would be investigating and reviewing the information, the revelations highlighted how much there is still to do to make the fashion world ethical.

And, of course, it’s not just a question of sweatshop conditions and low wages. According to shocking statistics produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (which has a goal of creating a sustainable global economy), our shopping habits are helping to poison the planet, with toxic pesticides used in the production of textiles leeching into the atmosphere, and even our water supplies.

So why have so many of us – myself included – found it all too easy not to ask proactive questions, and for so long? Yes, when news stories break we’ll be outraged, but too often we let our fingers swipe, click and buy, often without a second thought as to #whomademyclothes (the hashtag started by ethical campaigning movement Fashion Revolution)? Why – despite proclaiming our ethics loudly – do we wait for companies to be caught out, rather than actively demanding change?

As uncomfortable as it is to admit, in a world where we’re now ‘woke’ to #MeToo, LGBTQ+, global warming, Trump and more, are we avoiding questioning the fashion world because it’s the one thing we’ve used as a hedonistic escape from the tough stuff?

Isn’t it time we all demanded more?

Here’s what you need to know:

Cheap clothes = cheap labour

There is literally no getting away from it. If your t-shirt cost £5, there’s a very high chance that the person who made it wasn’t paid a living wage.

“If you think about what’s going into making a garment - the laborers, the transportations, the textiles, the raw materials, all the different processes, the overheads for the factories themselves - it’s crazy how little the people at the beginning of the supply chain get,” says Charlotte Turner, Sustainable Apparel & Textiles Specialist at EcoAge, the globally renowned sustainability consultancy launched by eco activist Livia Firth. “And then you have the retailers with these really excessive mark ups getting the bulk of the profit.”

But it’s not all bad news

Before you stop shopping in your favourite high street stores, the biggest names ARE getting woke to the issues – and working hard to improve their credentials. Inditex, the owner of Zara, was ranked the most sustainable company in the global retailing industry by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the third year in a row in 2018, as a result of their new Join Life sustainable collection, championing human rights along its supply chain and its environmental reporting, as well as its ‘Close the loop’ initiative which aims to create a completely circular life cycle for all their clothes.

And Know The Chain, a humanitarian organisation aiming to help large companies erase forced labour, published a report last year on the efforts of 43 of the largest clothing brands to achieve this. Adidas, Lululemon, Gap, Primark, H&M, Nike and Hugo Boss were in the top 10 retailers in their survey. However, only seven brands out of the 43 examined provided evidence of how they support ethical recruitment of workers in their supply chain. And Labour Behind the Label released another report into H&M last year, based on interviews with employers along the company’s supply chain, that claimed despite H&M promising living wages, their workers were still in poverty. A spokesman for H&M told GLAMOUR: “H&M’s core business idea is to create great fashion and quality, at the best price in a sustainable way. We also believe that we have a responsibility to use our size and scale to drive long-term positive change across the entire fashion industry. As such our sustainability vision is to lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion, while being a fair and equal company.”

It’s worth highlighting, though, that however much a company has invested in improving conditions for their workforce, there is an element of trust that inevitably goes into the process – with on-the-ground management running it day to day. Hence what was uncovered in the factory producing the Spice Girls t-shirts.

YOU can help improve conditions too

Eco Age’s Livia Firth, QC Jessica Simor and Annie Lennox’s The Circle launched a report in 2017 calling for the fashion industry to pay all its workers a living wage. Led from a legal perspective, it makes the case that being paid the living wage is a human right, not a privilege. To get involved, visit their ‘donate’ page.

It’s not just about low wages – the processes that go into making our clothes are even worse for the planet than flying (yes, really)

Of course, it’s vital to improve pay and workers conditions. But there are also HUGE environmental issues. The oil and water used from making our clothes – and the carbon dioxide produced is quite literally poisoning the planet. According to studies compiled by EcoAge and the Ellen MacArthur foundation, 20% of freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing, and approximately 50% of all pesticides used in the whole of India are used in cotton production. But it’s not just cotton – an estimated 98 million tonnes of oil are used to produce plastic based fibres for fabric, like nylon or polyester, every year. Textile production (including cotton farming) uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually, contributing to water problems in some water-scarce regions. And in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production totalled 1.2 billion tonnes of C02 equivalent – more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

These stats are shocking enough, but because of the rapidly increasing amount of clothes we buy each year by 2050, the fashion industry could be using so much carbon to produce the clothes we’re consuming that the fashion industry alone could contribute to a 2 degrees celcius global temperature rise.

And we’re making it worse by NOT WEARING our clothes enough

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in the last 15 years clothing production has doubled, but the number of times an item is worn has decreased by 36% - and more than half of the ‘fast fashion’ high street clothes that are produced are disposed of in less than a year. We only wear some of our clothes just seven to 10 times (admit it, we’ve all got a few). And when we throw our clothes away, most of it ends up in landfill – and because the fabrics aren’t biodegradable, that’s where they continue to sit. Less than 1% of material used to produce our clothes is recycled into new clothing (something that affects the luxury industry as much as the high street) – a loss of $100bn dollars of materials each year.

This is not new information

It’s just that for far too long we’ve not paid enough attention. Iconic fashion designer Katherine Hamnett, who has campaigned for sustainability in fashion for over 30 years, recently told GLAMOUR's Editor-in-Chief, Deborah Joseph, that a report she commissioned in 1989 kickstarted her passionate crusade, as it revealed, in her words, “a right living nightmare.”

Research uncovered “10,000 deaths a year from accidental pesticide poisoning in conventional cotton agriculture,” as well as “toxins from the leather industry, chrome – which is a complete nightmare from when it’s mined to when it decomposes in landfill, the toxins from microfibers in synthetics…”. She also flags issues with wool (the shearing process), cashmere (the goats reared to meet demand are destroying the environment in Mongolia) and non-tencel viscose. But despite her desire to reform the industry, even printing instructions on the back of her ‘Choose Life’ t-shirts of how to your MP or protest, the first time she produced the t-shirts, the fashion industry had a “mixed reaction.” Now, of course, we’re all starting to think differently.

The positive change we can ALL make - affordably

Every single expert GLAMOUR spoke to agreed that the most impactful change we can all make is buying organic cotton – which is farmed without chemicals and pesticides and uses less water. Increasing numbers of high street stores are introducing sustainable and organic ranges – see H&M’s conscious collection and Zara’s Join Life for example, Mango stock a huge range of clothing in organic cotton, while John Lewis and Next, for example, stock smaller quantities. But it’s still not used consistently across the collections in the biggest high street brands.

As Katherine Hamnett explains: “Conventional cotton is grown with agrochemicals which are super toxic for the environment. Organic cotton is rotated with food, is best for biodiversity, best for farmers, best for the planet.”

Charlotte Turner also adds that linen is also a great sustainable fabric to wear – as it uses much less water than cotton, there is very little waste (leftover seeds can be sold for eating or used to make oil) and you don’t need as many pesticides to grow it. Also look for organic linen, and tencel is a great sustainable modern fabric.

This doesn’t mean you only have to wear organic cotton and linen (phew)

Big tech has got designs on our wardrobes – and it’s kind of amazing. Eco Age rounded up some of their favourite new fabrics for us:

Piñatex® by Ananas Anam - a natural leather alternative made using pineapple leaf fibre

Apple Skin by FRUMAT – another leather alternative made from apple skin and core waste

ECONYL® by Aquafil – a nylon made from recycled fishing nets and carpets

Microsilk® by Bolt Threads – silk made from bioengineered replicas of spider silk (the same company also make a mushroom leather). Stella McCartney works very closely with the company

Piracuru Fish Leather by Osklen – made from fish skin that has gone to waste in local fishing communities, providing new income streams

But the downside is, these cost

Unfortunately, a lot of the materials above are expensive – right now. But the more the high street brands invest in the new technologies, the likelihood is the cheaper they’ll become.

So, can we really shop sustainably on the high street?

Charlotte Turner from EcoAge says: “At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s really possible to create fashion at such speed and volume and deem it sustainable. We’ve really forgotten the value of fashion – it never used to be this cheap. People used to own far fewer garments, they would cost more but they would be higher quality, they would last longer but they would be careful more.”

But Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, takes a slightly different view. While she says it’s “not possible to shop sustainably and ethically on the high street, you can be a sustainable consumer.” Her biggest bugbear is our “hyperconsumption.”

“Being a conscious consumer isn’t just about finding the ‘conscious products’, it’s about giving your clothes a lot of life – whatever they cost, wherever you bought them. Fix your broken zippers, adapt and re-customise your wardrobe, before you buy something else. It’s a question of quantity.”

And if you just don’t want your clothes anymore – recycle, don’t chuck! Every expert trumpeted the importance of recycling if you can’t repurpose. TK Maxx have long collaborated on their Give Up Clothes for Good initiative with Cancer Research and H&M offer a clothes recycling service in 270 stores – they accept clothes, in any condition, from any brand, with clothes that can be worn sold second-hand, and the rest used for products such as cleaning cloths or recycled into new fabrics. They promise 0% will go to landfill.

In my view? While there’s still a long way to go before the high street is fully sustainable, I still passionately believe that fashion should be attainable to all. Sadly, with nearly 14 million people in the UK on the poverty line, it’s an impossibility for the entire country to start investing in expensive eco-fashion. That’s why it matters so much that our high street brands take it upon themselves to provide us with the most sustainable clothes they can. And in the meantime it’s up to us to think much harder before we buy – who made it, what it’s made from, and do we REALLY really want it, even it costs £5.