Who's Really Paying for Our Cheap Clothes?
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.
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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.
"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."
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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