Greenwashing: fast fashion can never be sustainable!

05 June 2021

Millie Collins

Many high street fast fashion brands have recently released ‘conscious’ and sustainable ranges, part of an ongoing corporate greenwashing trend. Greenwashing is the practice of making exaggerated claims of sustainability and or environmental friendliness to appeal to the environmentally conscious shopper.

H&M have released a ‘conscious’ range of clothing made from Circulose, a low waste, non-toxic and durable material. Circulose has the potential to drastically reduce the destruction that the fashion industry is wreaking on the environment. However, H&M is one of the worst offenders in the fashion industry. They have accrued over $4 billion worth of unsold stock since 2013, approximately 80 tonnes of which has been sent to landfill or destroyed. They are trying to greenwash their brand by offering Circulose as a more expensive option, while continuing their environmentally destructive practices.

Most of the stock produced by these fast fashion companies is causing irreversible damage to both people and the planet. This completely outweighs any of their sustainability efforts.

Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste are created each year and the equivalent to a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up in landfill sites every second. By 2030, it is predicted that more than 134 million tonnes of textiles will be discarded each year.

The International Energy Agency estimated that in 2016 the textile industry generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, meaning fashion’s carbon footprint is larger than maritime shipping and international flights combined. 

One of the biggest loopholes with sustainable fashion is that currently terms like ‘ethical’ or ‘eco-friendly’ have no legal meaning, so companies cannot be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) by the law. This less than clear view of sustainability is partly due to the lack of government funded research into the fashion industries impact on the environment, but mainly due to a lack of will to regulate this global industry.

These fast fashion companies commission the production of far more items than they ever sell. This is partly because they know that some clothes will not turn out to be popular and some will become damaged, but more fundamentally they overproduce as part of the capitalist battle for ever greater market share and ever greater profits. Production costs are kept low through the use of sweat shop labour, mainly in in semi-colonial countries with looser regulation of working conditions. The companies know they will end up wasting tonnes of clothing, and build it into their financial forecasts. This is all part of the fast fashion production model and it’s the way these companies turn a profit.

Outsourcing the environmental damage

Many fashion companies such as Nike, Burberry, H&M and urban outfitters have been destroying their stock for years. Back in 2016 Burberry came under fire for destroying $36.8 million of its own stock.

Fast fashion companies use high volumes of non-renewable resources, including petroleum which is extracted to produce clothes that are often used only for a short period of time, after which they are largely lost to landfill or incineration. Polyester, made from oil, makes up 60% of fibers used so when these fabrics burn they release harmful chemicals into the air. This system puts degrades ecosystems in addition to creating societal impacts on a global scale.

Around 15 million garments per week flow through Kantamanto, one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the world. The Ghanaian market and is filled with surplus clothing that arrives in bundles from America and UK. Retailers take out substantial loans to purchase the bundles, hoping to make some money reselling the items, but almost half of what is bought is thrown away.

A shocking amount of clothing piles up in the streets, on the beaches, and in dumpsites around the city. One landfill situated near a river is over 30 feet tall, containing mostly secondhand clothing from the market. The water near the dump is toxic, the surface of the water ripples and bubbles as if it were constantly raining. Some of the items even make it into the sea, wrapping around other garments and general waste to create tentacles up to 25 feet long. Clogged gutters from the clothing waste lead to flooding, increasing the risk of cholera and malaria for those in the community.

That is just one of many examples of the damage the fashion industry is doing to the environment. Microplastics shedding from poorly made clothes filtering out into the sea, the rising CO2 emissions causing global temperature to rise and the detrimental effects burning of these noxious fabrics has on the surrounding communities to name a few. 

It is just straight up offensive for brands to call themselves sustainable because they produce a line of eco-friendly clothing, while they continue to produce massive amounts of waste and outsource its consequences to communities in poorer countries.

These fast fashion conglomerates should have their brands “contaminated” by pickets of their shops with leaflets and images showing the damage and devastation they’re causing.

The H&M example shows the futility of individualistic solutions to climate change and pollution – not everyone can afford to pay extra for environmentally “conscious” alternatives. So long as companies can profit from making products that damage the environment they will have no ethical problem with doing that, so they must be stopped by mass, collective action and pressure for greater regulation.

We should campaign alongside progressive NGOs, trade unions, climate change and anti-sweatshop organisations to demand enforcement of environmental laws and standards, and the raising of standards. One focus of such campaigning should be to hold companies to account for environmental damage they inflict on semi colonial countries. Fast fashion can never be and will never be sustainable!


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