“Ethical Consumption can ultimately serve as a type of delusion or fantasy where we tell ourselves that our economic actions are righteous and that we’re doing our small part to make a difference, even in the face of underwhelming evidence.” – Elizabeth Cline

Over the last decade, and increasingly over the last couple of years, there have been a steadily growing number of fast fashion brands that have come out with “sustainable” capsule collections. You know the ones, I’m sure — they have ethereal words filling their names, like conscious, committed, choose life, and renew. These garments, we are led to believe, represent not only the evolving environmental consciousness of the high street, but the solution to all of our climate woes. I say “led to believe” because the truth of the matter is that these fast fashion brands, with their murky buzzwords, shiny celebrity sustainability ambassadors, and ridiculous advertising budgets, are having us on. These collections are not indicative of a genuine interest on the part of brands to do the hard (read: decolonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist) work that is required for the fashion industry to even begin to be ecologically regenerative. Rather, they are a sharp marketing hook. Exploiting the very real rise in climate concern globally, and the very real rise in consumer awareness it has produced, fast fashion giants are using sustainability rhetoric to prop up the Western imperialist economic systems that are responsible for our climate woes in the first place.

Since the inception of the conscious capsule collection, brands have made little to no progress integrating the “better” practices they utilize on small eco-lines into their larger product offerings.

Fast fashion brands have been able to portray themselves, or at least parts of themselves, as “sustainable” because there is both a lack of understanding amongst the general populous as to how and where their clothing is made (and by whom) and a disturbing lack of regulation around the definition of words and labels pertaining to sustainability in garment supply chains. This leaves the door wide open for greenwashing — a term that refers to the practice of spreading false or exaggerated information about an organization’s environmental credentials, largely for the purpose of driving sales. There is clear and mounting evidence that we only have around ten years to prevent the climate crisis from venturing past the point of no return. Despite this, fast fashion still seems more interested in how it can market its vague sustainability efforts to harness more financial profit than actually engaging in authentic efforts to lower their environmental impact. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of what brands are selling is still made conventionally even if they market a particular line of clothing that is supposedly made in a more ethical and sustainable manner. Since the inception of the conscious capsule collection, brands have made little to no progress integrating the “better” practices they utilize on small eco-lines into their larger product offerings.

ZARA, for example, introduced its Join Life line in 2016, with the (alleged) goal that all of its products would increasingly become more sustainable. At the time of writing this piece, the entire Join Life women’s collection consists of around 280 pieces, while there are over 1,500 items in the women’s general ‘Dresses and Jumpsuits’ category alone. What’s more, the collection still appears to use an array of self-defined, non-specific, confusing metrics to classify its garments as “sustainable”. These include:

– “contains at least 50% organic cotton”

– “contains at least 25% recycled polyester”

– “produced using less water”

– “produced without artificial irrigation”.

The absence of any genuine advancements in this regard raises questions about the sincerity of the intentions of these kinds of fashion lines to begin with.

Billionaire fast fashion companies depend on the neocolonial structure of modern garment supply chains in which the imbalance of power ensures that human, as well as natural, capital in the Global South can be infinitely exploited with little to no consequences.

In addition to embellishing their environmental credentials, fast fashion companies are further misleading the public by feeding consumers a very narrow definition of sustainability. Pushing agendas that refer largely only to raw materials and ecological matters, for example, these “eco-collections” conveniently disregard the equally important social issues that plague, and are perpetuated by, the fast fashion model. The Global North has developed a seemingly insatiable demand for cheap fast fashion, and the true cost of meeting these demands is, of course, borne by the Global South. “In the same way that colonized nations provided cheap sugar, chocolate, coffee, and fruit to the West, “developing” nations now provide cheap semi-disposable clothes to the West and global economic upper classes.” Billionaire fast fashion companies depend on the neocolonial structure of modern garment supply chains in which the imbalance of power ensures that human, as well as natural, capital in the Global South can be infinitely exploited with little to no consequences. Therefore, in addition to disproportionately being affected by extreme climate events exacerbated by resource extraction and biodiversity loss, workers in these countries earn so little that they literally cannot sustain themselves and their families. This has never been more apparent than during the Covid-19 pandemic, when dozens of global brands were (almost) allowed to get away with refusing to pay garment manufacturers for an estimated $40 billion worth of finished goods, leaving millions of already vulnerable garment makers in the lurch, not knowing where their next meal would come from. True sustainability in fashion (and beyond) thus means environmental justice: taking into account the dignity of people as well as the well-being of the planet, and acknowledging that the two are intrinsically linked. The fact that brands tend to ignore this intersection in their “earth-friendly” capsule collections again proves that these lines are not suggestive of a larger, deep-rooted dedication to any kind of sustainability, but rather, are reflective of what fast fashion companies ultimately see as being a marketing tool they can utilize to make more profit.

Perhaps the most outlandish of the narratives that fast fashion brands and retailers are pushing, through their overhyped and underdeveloped sustainability initiatives, is that shopping is the solution to the climate crisis.

British E-commerce site Boohoo, one of the latest companies to introduce a collection of “environmentally-friendly” garments, drives this point home perhaps better than any other brand. (In)famous for its ability to knock-off trends quicker than almost anyone else, Boohoo prides itself on having its finger on the pulse. Unsurprisingly then, it has sought to capitalize on the sustainability trend as well. Boohoo’s Ready for the Future collection contains 143 pieces made from 95% recycled plastic and retails for between £4 and £20. The superficiality of Boohoo’s definition of sustainability is hard to miss. Not only is 143 “sustainable” garments a drop in the ocean of the tens of thousands of presumably unsustainable other garments currently available on their website, but at these prices there is absolutely no way that the garment workers or raw materials producers who make these clothes earn anywhere near a living wage. Fast fashion is ultimately only possible in a world without labor rights, and Boohoo’s inability; to even pretend that the company believes there is more to sustainability than just recycled polyester speaks to the one-dimensional view of sustainability that is convenient for, and thus preserved by, the fast fashion industry as a whole.

Perhaps the most outlandish of the narratives that fast fashion brands and retailers are pushing, through their overhyped and underdeveloped sustainability initiatives, is that shopping is the solution to the climate crisis. Essentially, we are told, we can and we must “consciously consume” our way to a healthier planet and a better world. “Ethical” or “conscious” consumption is the Trojan horse that has been used to fool us into maintaining the status quo that paved the way for our climate breakdown to begin with. Sustainability, even by the shallow definition given by fast fashion brands, is not something that can be bought. The pursuit of infinite economic growth, even in the name of circularity, is not compatible with our finite planetary boundaries. Nor is it compatible with guaranteed living wages and decent working conditions for all. However unfortunately, these truths do not serve the agenda of capitalism, and so fast fashion companies continue to urge us to “vote with our wallets.” At this point, this seems a bit like paying to upgrade seats on the Titanic.

Fast fashion companies continue to urge us to “vote with our wallets.” At this point, this seems a bit like paying to upgrade seats on the Titanic.

No brand sells conscious consumerism better than H&M, who launched the original “Conscious Collection” in 2012. Because of this, few brands provide more compelling evidence that these collections have done little to save us from ourselves. In the decade since H&M started ‘prioritizing’ using more sustainable materials, investing in closed-loop technologies, and talking about guaranteeing garment workers a living wage, the Conscious Collection is still not fully integrated into H&M’s entire product offering. This lack of action continues to deny that sustainability is at odds with economic growth, and the brand has broken its promises regarding a living wage. H&M has long claimed that, beyond its own business, it seeks to “influence the industry as whole towards a sustainable fashion future.” If anything, the success of the company’s hollow sustainability rhetoric has given license to other brands to pursue the same course of action. Greenwashing is the fast fashion party line.

Ultimately, these individual sustainable collections are small potatoes compared to the billions of tons of clothing brands are producing and we are consuming and discarding every year. As long as there continue to be ‘eco-friendly’ capsule collections, these lines will not represent a genuine interest on the part of companies to truly tackle the social and environmental ills of the fashion industry. Without addressing overproduction, overconsumption, and maker well-being, eco-lines are a far cry from the total systems overhaul that is required to reach the ambitious, science-based global targets that have been set to revert the climate crisis. Therefore, rather than continue to cave to the seductive false promises of “conscious consumerism,” it would surely be more productive for us to take on the role of discerning consumer activists who continue to scrutinize the intentions of fast fashion brands and demand better from them and the legislation that allows them to operate in this way. Systemic change in the fashion industry will not come from buying an organic cotton t-shirt. It will evolve as we continue to put pressure on antiquated capitalist institutions by advocating for and supporting binding agreements that center workers and environmental justice, and keep brands accountable for their direct and indirect actions.

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