Quantcast

Who's Really Paying for Our Cheap Clothes?

Can the fast fashion industry ever truly be sustainable?

Earlier this month, H&M released its 110-page Conscious Action Sustainability Report, its 13th annual review of its green practices and efforts towards fair wages within its factories. Although many of its figures and initiatives are commendable (e.g. its in-store recycling program brought in around 13,000 tons of clothing; it aims to use 80 percent renewable electricity by year's end; it's inspecting more textile suppliers in order to improve working conditions), environmental and social advocates have pointed out some of the report's inconsistencies.

H&M's latest sustainability report touts the brand's commitment to environmental and social responsibility, but who's really paying for our cheap clothes?
Photo credit: Shutterstock

First, Quartz shed light on the Swedish fashion giant's use of cotton. While the company is the world's number-one user of organic cotton, only 13.7 percent of the cotton H&M uses is organic. As we mentioned before, cotton is one of the most toxic crops in the world. The Organic Consumers Association says that cotton uses more than 25 percent of all the insecticides in the world and 12 percent of all the pesticides. Cotton is also incredibly water-intensive. The World Wildlife Fund says it takes 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton—the equivalent of a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

And although Greenpeace East Asia called H&M one of its leaders in their Detox Catwalk report last month for eliminating toxic perfluorinated chemicals in its products and banning the use of endocrine disrupting APs/APEOs and phthalates during manufacturing, the whole buy-and-discard mentality of fast fashion has been called into question.

As Quartz pointed out, H&M manufactures at least 600 million items annually for its 3,200 stores around the world, and that's not even including its thousands of subsidiary brand stores, such as COS. The fashion chain also plans to open a net total of 400 new H&M stores and nine new online markets this year alone.

Fast fashion and e-commerce have presented people with more shopping choices than ever before, in turn causing more waste as more and more clothes are being discarded for new items. In fact, the average U.S. citizen tosses around 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles a year.

"Fundamentally, there is a disconnect between the idea that you are selling a tremendous amount of clothing in fast fashion and that you are trying to be a sustainable company,” said Linda Greer, who, as Natural Resources Defense Council′s (NRDC) senior scientist and director of Clean By Design, has helped H&M clean up its chemical-intensive textile dyeing and finishing process.

NRDC has partnered up with H&M and other prominent brands such as Target, Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss and Co. through the Clean By Design program to improve their environmental practices in textile mills in China. NRDC produced a new report last week which found that these sustainable fashion leaders save $14.7 million annually through major cuts in water, energy and chemical use.

“Great fashion can also be green fashion. Although apparel manufacturing is among the largest polluting industries in the world, it doesn’t have to be,” said Greer. “There are enormous opportunities for the fashion industry to clean up its act while saving money, and Clean By Design offers low-cost, high-impact solutions to do just that.”

In addition to fast fashion's environmental input, another major concern is the poor conditions of the textile workers, especially in light of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh where more than 1,100 workers were killed (H&M did not have a contract with that factory.)

In 2013, the brand committed to paying 850,000 textile workers a "fair living wage" by 2018. The sustainability report said H&M is testing out a "pay-structure improvement method" in two factories in Bangladesh and one in Cambodia, where H&M is the sole client. The report said that its first evaluation has been carried out in its Cambodian factory and that "overtime has decreased, wages have risen, productivity has increased and dialogue between employer and employees has improved."

However, the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of garment industry labor unions and NGOs, has criticized the brand's latest report for having "no real figures to show progress towards this goal" of a fair living wage.

In the web series "Sweatshop," three fast fashion consumers visited a Cambodian garment factory for one month to learn about the true cost of cheap clothing. Photo credit: Heather Stilwell

"H&M’s report does not accurately reflect the reality on the ground in Cambodia or Bangladesh and their PR rings hollow to workers who are struggling everyday to feed their families," said Athit Kong, Vice President of the Cambodian garment workers’ union C.CAWDU. "A ‘sustainability’ model that is put forth and wholly controlled by H&M but is not founded in genuine respect for organized workers and trade unions on the ground is never going to result in real change for H&M production workers and only serves as a public relations façade to cover up systemic abuse."

Also what exactly is a "fair living wage," as defined by H&M? Bangladesh has the world’s lowest minimum wage at $38 a month. Last November, Cambodia increased the monthly minimum wage for garment workers by 28 percent to $128, falling short of union workers' demands and creating the potential for further strikes in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Any kind of credible wage pilot project needs to have defined benchmarks and include clear and time-bound plans for making progress happen in all factories, not just the few,” Clean Clothes Campaign’s Carin Leffler said.

As the second biggest garment retailer in the world and the biggest buyer of clothes from Bangladesh, H&M could be a major player in changing the dirty textile industry for the better. H&M said their CEO Karl-Johan Persson has met twice with the Bangladeshi government and visited the Cambodian prime minister to discuss labor topics such as increasing the minimum wage and reducing overtime.

Earlier this year, the web documentary series Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion took three young Norwegians—fashion blogger Anniken Jørgensen and fast fashion consumers Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro—on a surprise trip to a Cambodian garment factory to work for a month. They were horrified to learn about the workers' impoverished conditions, where some workers and their families have died of starvation because they can't make ends meet due to low wages.

Although H&M has denied buying items from any of the shops featured in the show, as Ottesen said in episode five, "I can't understand why the big chains, like H&M, don't act? H&M is a big company with massive amounts of power. Do something!"

The truth is, cheap clothing has a real cost. "It is not fair that anybody sit 12 hours sewing and sewing until they collapse of dehydration and hunger," Hambro said. "And the truth is that we are rich because they are poor. We are rich because it costs us 10 Euro to buy a T-shirt at H&M, but somebody has to starve for you to be able to buy it."

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

3 Companies Specializing in Organic Clothing for Kids

Companies Respond to Women’s Call for Toxic-Free Products

7 Eco-Friendly Fabrics That Will Green Your Wardrobe

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Health
PxHere

This Common Preservative in Processed Food May Be Making You Tired

By Brian Mastroianni

Is it hard to motivate yourself to get off the couch and go exercise?

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
MarioGuti / iStock / Getty Images

EVs 101: Your Guide to Electric Vehicles

By Patrick Rogers

If you have ever considered making the switch to an environmentally friendly electric vehicle, don't drag your feet. Though EV prices are falling, and states are unveiling more and more public charging stations and plug-in-ready parking spots, the federal government is doing everything it can to slam the brakes on our progress away from gas-burning internal combustion engines. President Trump, likely pressured by his allies in the fossil fuel industry, has threatened to end the federal tax credits that have already helped put hundreds of thousands of EVs on the road—a move bound to harm not only our environment but our economy, too. After all, the manufacturing and sale of EVs, hybrids, and plug-in hybrids supported 197,000 jobs in 2017, according to the most recent U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
An adult bush dog, part of a captive breeding program. Hudson Garcia

A Rescue Dog Is Now Helping to Save Other (Much Wilder) Dogs

By Jason Bittel

Formidable predators stalk the forests between Panama and northern Argentina. They are sometimes heard but never seen. They are small but feisty and have even been documented trying to take down a tapir, which can top out at nearly 400 pounds. Chupacabras? No.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
RoNeDya / iStock / Getty Images

What Is Mead, and Is It Good for You?

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Mead is a fermented beverage traditionally made from honey, water and a yeast or bacterial culture.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
U.S. Army member helps clear debris from Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael. U.S. Army

Pentagon: Climate Change Is Real and a 'National Security Issue'

The Pentagon released a Congressionally mandated report (pdf) that warns flooding, drought and wildfires and other effects of climate change puts U.S. military bases at risk.

The 22-page analysis states plainly: "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Protesters interrupt the confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on Capitol Hill Jan. 16 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

5 People Calling Out EPA Acting Head Wheeler for Putting Polluters First

This week, people across the country are joining environmental leaders to speak out against the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Scott Pruitt's hand-picked successor, Wheeler has continued to put polluters over people, most recently by using the last of his agency's funding before it expired in the government shutdown to announce plans to allow power plants to spew toxic mercury and other hazardous pollution into the air.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Great white shark. Elias Levy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marine Biologists Raise Flags About Viral Great White Shark Encounter

By now you might have seen Ocean Ramsey's rare and jaw-dropping encounter with a great white shark in waters near Oahu, Hawaii.

Ramsey, a marine biologist, said on the TODAY Show that it was "absolutely breathtaking and heart-melting" to be approached by the massive marine mammal.

Keep reading... Show less
A tree found severed in half in an act of vandalism in Joshua Tree National Park. Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes / Getty Images

Wall Before Country Takes Mounting Toll on Americans Everywhere

By Rhea Suh

One month on, the longest and most senseless U.S. government shutdown in history is taking a grave and growing toll on the environment and public health.

Food inspectors have been idled or are working without pay, increasing the risk we'll get sick from eating produce, meat and poultry that isn't properly checked. National parks and public wilderness lands are overrun by vandals, overtaken by off-road joyriders, and overflowing with trash. Federal testing of air and water quality, as well as monitoring of pollution levels from factories, incinerators and other sources, is on hold or sharply curtailed. Citizen input on critical environmental issues is being hindered. Vital research and data collection are being sidelined.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!