Moa Zettervall loves to go shopping. She visits H&M, Zara, Mango and other stores of international apparel brands about once a week, and buys at least one new item per month. But she has also heard from friends and read online about the textile industry’s frequent harsh treatment of its workers, along with its impact on the environment.
“In Bangladesh, for example, it is not fair. The people that work and make the clothes don’t get enough money and their work conditions are bad,” said the 19-year-old Zettervall, in a shopping mall in Stockholm. “And also it is not good for the environment that the clothes are made there and flown here.”
Zettervall is not alone in worrying about her clothes-shopping habits. Surveys conducted by the Global Poverty Project and by universities throughout the Western world — in places such as France, Wales and California — all point to increasing consumer awareness to negative social and environmental effects of the fashion industry.
And the leading brands are starting to respond – at least on the surface. Many fashion industry labels employ "green" and "ethical" marketing to target "conscious" consumers: H&M's Conscious collection, made of organic cotton and recycled polyester; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection; Adidas’ Design for Environment gear; Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative; Zara’s eco-efficient stores; and the Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, to benefit the lives of female garment workers.
Last year's deadly collapse of a massive textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, raised big questions about worker safety.Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images
But it is not that simple. Advocates say the challenge for consumers like Zettervall, who says she wants to shop responsibly, is to discern the difference between those companies seriously engaged in minimizing the social and environmental cost of fashion, and those employing mere marketing gimmicks – often dubbed “greenwashers.”
“There are so many initiatives out there right now that are ‘sustainable,’ ‘green’ or ‘eco,’” said Lewis Perkins of Cradle to Cradle, a nonprofit organization that helps manufacturers produce in a responsible manner. “I think it is really confusing for the consumer to understand and validate what it means.”
A truly sustainable product, Perkins believes, is a reusable item that has a positive impact on the environment and those who make it. That is an area where the clothing industry, which is based mostly on mass manufacturing in the developing world, has serious problems, mainly labor abuses and industrial practices that lead to pollution or accidents. These issues were highlighted in the starkest way last year when more than 1,100 garment workers were killed and about 2,500 injured after the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh.
The disaster, which took place in a facility that was producing for American and European buyers, brought global attention to the issues. But activists complain that evidence of unethical and environmentally damaging norms in the apparel production process had long been available. In 2013, a report by the Center for American Progress revealed that workers in many apparel-exporting countries earn little more than subsistence wages for 14-hour workdays. Human Rights Watch reported that factory owners used beatings and death threats to stop organizers from unionizing garment workers. In China, where over half the world’s clothes are made, industrial waste in areas where textile manufacturing is concentrated has created severe water pollution and has negatively affected the soil and air, according to the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs.
Greenpeace has also created a Greenwashers list to shame leading brands that are failing to follow through on their promise to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chain, after investigations in China and in Indonesia — another hub for global apparel production — found a range of hazardous substances being discharged from textile factories into nearby rivers.
But identifying greenwashers is more complicated than just pointing out abusive labor conditions and polluting industrial practices, according to Livia Firth of Eco Age, a London-based consultancy firm. Firth is one of the loudest voices lobbying against fast-fashion brands — which encourage excessive consumption by constantly putting out inexpensive new collections while simultaneously promoting sustainable fashion. She said fast fashion and sustainability is an oxymoron.
“Sustainability and consumerism do not go hand in hand,” said Firth. “It is admirable that H&M is doing so much work in sustainability, but all these brands — H&M, Zara, whatever — they are still producing in such volumes and at such ridiculous prices.”
Firth said fast-fashion brands must change their business model. Otherwise, she said, their sustainability efforts — no matter how genuine — are a form of greenwashing.
That point of view gets short shrift from the industry. “It is not greenwashing,” said Catarina Midby, H&M’s head of sustainable fashion, about the Swedish brand’s Conscious collection. “It is a way to raise awareness with the consumers about these different fabrics and offer them a better choice.”
Midby said that all of the company’s suppliers are required to follow a strict code of conduct to ensure workers’ rights and minimize the supply chain’s ecological impact, and that all the information about the production process is transparent on the brand’s website.
Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer for Kering, a corporation that owns 22 brands including Puma and Gucci, gave a similar response. Daveu said that Kering has set competitive targets with specific deadlines for reducing CO2 emissions and energy waste, and also that the company is developing a tool to measure the environmental footprint of all its brands. “For us, sustainability is not only an obligation, it’s an opportunity,” Daveu said. “We go beyond the traditional approach and take account of the impacts of our entire supply chain, and not just those resulting from our own operations.”
Finding ways to increase consumers’ knowledge about the impact of clothes production is one of the main challenges for the fashion industry. Eva Kruse, CEO of the Danish Fashion Institute, has suggested a system similar to that used on refrigerators and air conditioners, where a label informs consumers about a product’s environmental toll. “It will educate us as consumers,” Kruse said. ”It will make us more aware that the product we are buying has a price in currency, but it also has a price for our planet.”
That level of transparency is already available on a smaller scale. In the online store Honest by, every product comes with information about materials used, the manufacturing process and a breakdown of costs. The denim brand Nudie Jeans has a production guide, which presents data about the company’s entire supply chain.
But it is not easy. For the larger firms — with their huge supply chains — it is difficult to fully track where any given item of clothing might have come from and how it was made. In 2011, Nike, the Gap, Target and other major brands joined forces with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other industry stakeholders to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, whose goal is to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel through collaboration and collective action. Roughly 35 percent of world turnover in apparel is represented in the SAC’s membership.
The main initiative of the SAC is a tool called the Higg Index, which measures five factors — water use, carbon emissions, waste, chemical constituents and labor conditions — across the life cycle of apparel products. It is deliberately taking a broad-brush approach across the whole supply chain of any single product. “For example, a shirt made of organic cotton may have been sewn in a facility with bonded labor,” said Jason Kibbey, the SAC’s chief executive. “It might be dyed with chemicals from harmful materials that are both harmful to the wearer of the garment and to the workers who worked there. It may have been flown via air freight to North America from South Asia with an incredibly large carbon footprint. This shirt isn’t sustainable, but unless we look at all the stages of production, in today’s world it might actually be described as such.”
For Moa Zettervall, the Swedish millennial who loves to go shopping, any transparency in the fashion industry would be a positive development. “Clothes companies should give us more information,” she said, standing outside an H&M store with a bag of newly purchased items.