The High Street Eco Range: Is It Enough?

Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice.Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Sustainable. Conscious. Eco. There is a veritable glut of new high street ranges on the scene, all of which claiming to be one or all of the three. The press coverage has been glowing. Allure Magazine has called for readers to rejoice. Grazia, rather missing the point, considers it another reason to go shopping. The Huffington Post jumped dramatically onto the press release bandwagon and boldly declared that the new Zara sustainable range was giving them LIFE. On the surface these ranges are nothing but positive. They are stylish, ethical, easily available and affordably priced. They are produced by workers who earn a fair wage in a safe space and/or using environmentally friendly materials. They take the notion of sustainable clothing mainstream, introducing it to those who perhaps still picture a sustainable dress as I once did, as a scratchy hemp sack with a batik print and neck hole. And yet, for all of the positives, I remain quietly sceptical.

Take Zara, for instance. Zara have recently taken up the green baton with the aforementioned Join Life range and their pledge to use recycled boxes. Yet before we start tripping over in our haste to ring the bells and hang out the flags, we need to consider the motivation behind it. Zara as a company has suffered several dents to its reputation of late. There was righteous anger when they blatantly ripped off Tuesday Bassen’s artwork and refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, choosing instead to argue that the work was too simple for her to have grounds for litigation before slyly removing the clothing that featured her designs from their stores. The Guardian accused of them of racially profiling their customers. They became the byword for fast, unsustainable fashion when they produced over 1 billion units in one calendar year. While the very fact that they produced so much clothing shows that they are about as far from being a company in trouble as it is possible to be, the cynical among us could argue that the Life range and the subsequent positive press coverage came at just the right time.

Am I saying that no good will come from Zara’s ethical range and the recycled box initiative? No. Am I saying that the intention behind such an initiative has to be altruistic in order for it to be effective? Of course not. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t allow a brand to co-opt sustainability in order to paper over the questionable business practices that they operate alongside it. We should still ask questions. When H&M, a company that famously refused to answer Livia Firth’s question of what constitutes a living wage at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit released a ‘Conscious Collection’, were they taking a step in the right direction or was it convenient way to detract attention from the human cost of their standard range? Should we be applauding these retailers, many of whom have been repeatedly tarred with an unethical brush, or should we be saying that’s a great start, what next?

The question of what next is particularly relevant when we look at Topshop, a retailer that turned the token green gesture into an art form with the launch of the ‘Reclaim’ range in 2015. The idea was simple, rather than throwing away the fabric remnants left over from previous pieces they would be made into something else, thus creating a line out of material that would heretofore have gone to waste. The initiative received an inordinate level of media praise considering it came from a company that refuses to disclose where their clothing is supplied from but how and ever, it was a good idea. Today the line is nowhere to be seen. I can only assume, since the demise of the line received exactly no press coverage, that it has been discontinued and that Topshop has quietly returned to doing what it did before which was to put the surplus fabric in the bin. There is currently no ethical range produced by Topshop. The larger stores carry independent labels, some of which are sustainable but apart from a pledge to use more sustainable cotton there is no in-house initiative. Unsurprisingly they have also declined to join the Ethical Trading Initiative, stating that Arcadia’s own standards adequately address consumer’s ethical concerns. In this instance, the release of a high street eco range appears as little more than a publicity stunt.

So, what to do?  There are a lot of articles calling for a boycott of consumer giants in favour of small, independent labels but this is unrealistic. Very few people have entirely sustainable wardrobes. I certainly don’t.  What I do like is to know where I’m spending my money. Everyone has a topic that particularly grates be it design theft, corporate tax evasion, cultural appropriation, pollution, exploitation. Would it change where you shopped if you knew that your preferred retailer were guilty of the whichever topic it is that you find hard to stomach? More than eco ranges, my feelings on this are about transparency and having the information that we need in order to make an informed purchase. The fact is that there is no real downside to the ethical high street ranges. Separate from their ability to act as a red herring, they are a force for good. Where we need to be careful is with how much stock we put into them. Before rushing to Instagram and using the #joinlife #ecobrand #consciousshopping tags that these brands so heavily encourage us to use in relation to their products we should perhaps consider the company behind the eco range and whether or not those hashtags still apply. Or, more worryingly, what they might be hiding.

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