Eco collections have become a regular part of the high street’s output, along with sparkly dresses at Christmas, and flowery dresses and bunny prints at Easter. Sure, they tick a few boxes for anyone half-interested in the organic content of their jeans. But are they simply token gestures in a broken system, or is the high street finally getting better?
Mango is the latest high-street brand to make a statement about improving the way it works in terms of more sustainable materials, with a new collection called Committed. It uses organic cottons and Tencel (which is in more plentiful supply and uses less water than cotton) and is designed to address some of the issues that big fashion brands spend most of their time creating.
It’s purposefully functional, neutral and natural in colour. The designs themselves are really quite impressive – clean lines, classic shapes, somehow both timely and timeless, which you can imagine having a life beyond a season (or even two). There’s still a way to go on garment workers’ wages and working conditions (something this collection doesn’t address); however, as an exercise in thoughtful, intelligent design, it’s really quite impressive. This is what the future of high-street fashion could look like.
And, little by little, we are edging towards a better high street, one in which these collections will one day be the rule, rather than the exception. Nobody wants to shop with the niggling doubt that their brand new top was made by someone living in abject poverty.
Last year, Fashion Revolution, with its annual #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory disaster on April 24 2013, released its first Fashion Transparency Index. It is a way of making the industry take responsibility for its supply chains and become more accountable to us, the shopper. The index scores a brand on how transparent it is on its policy and commitments, tracking and traceability, and social and environmental audits, but it is not an endorsement of the brand's ethical performance. (While H&M came top last year, it still struggles to deliver a fair living wage, as last week's action by workers at a factory the brand uses in Myanmar demonstrates). Mango had a score of 50 per cent – not great. But it seems the brand is now engaging with the index in a positive way. And it’s not the only one. Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, is hopeful and this year’s list extends to 100 brands (previously it was 40; the average score was 42 per cent).
Nobody wants to shop with the niggling doubt that their brand new top was made by someone living in abject poverty
“On a positive note, several brands have published their factory lists since the Fashion Transparency Index was published in April 2016,” she says. “We have seen M&S publish an interactive map, Gap and Zara's wet processing facilities, and ASOS is set to publish their list of own-brand factories by the end of March."
The high street wants to be doing the right thing (or seen to be doing it, at least). Marks & Spencer’s map shows the locations of each of their factories around the world, a big step away from the secrecy that a lot of brands have hidden behind. Jack Wills has gone one further, proudly publishing behind-the-scenes stories at their factories in China and Portugal on its website, so you can see the conditions and the garment-makers themselves. They even show their Sheffield distribution centre, as well as showing pictures of the state-of-the-art factory in Portugal where their hoodies (a fair £59.95) are made.
For Somers, some things are moving in the right direction, but there is still plenty to be done. And, while we have a long way to go before our high street can be called truly fair, we thought it was a good time to high-five some of the high-street brands who are at least trying to work towards a better way of doing things.
Marks & Spencer
Livia Firth’s useful forever dress, produced in collaboration with M&S, is still available to buy online. It uses Better Cotton, part of the brand’s overall commitment to ensure 70 per cent of its cotton is from sustainable sources by 2020. You can also recycle your clothes through M&S’s "shwopping" programme. They go to Oxfam. In terms of leadership, M&S is sending out all the right messages, which is so important. You can now see an interactive map on their website, which shows the names and locations of all their factories, a big step towards greater transparency in their supply chain. However Labour Behind The Label’s recent report into M&S’s commitment to pay a fair living wage for its garment workers stated that the brand failed to meet its goal for 2015.
Despite H&M’s sustainability programme and their current Bring It campaign focusing on recycling, there is a long way to go before they achieve a closed loop system, which means they won’t need to use precious virgin materials. But it’s something they are working towards. The brand's recent Close The Loop denim pieces are sold out, but the next Conscious Exclusive Collection is on sale April 20, with Natalia Vodianova as the face. It includes a pioneering sustainable material BIONIC®, which is recycled polyester made from plastic shoreline waste.
Puma recently put its head of sourcing in charge of sustainability initiatives, ensuring it is at the heart of the the business, rather than simply an arm of the marketing division. The brand is also increasing the frequency of its factory audits. Puma’s latest collaboration with Rihanna goes in store this month.
Nike’s Flyknit trainers show how cutting edge technology and innovative use of recycled materials and knitting can reduce waste and make for a more sustainable product that people actually want.
I feel queasy about including them, but Primark's Sustainable Cotton programme with CottonConnect has trained 1,251 women smallholders in Gujarat, India, to grow cotton, which has given them an average profit increase of 247 per cent (it’s easy to make a profit when your base line is minimal). Over the next five years, they will take 10,000 more women farmers through the programme. Nevertheless, the low prices – £10 for a pair of distressed denim shorts – just don’t make sense. The pile ’em high sell ’em cheap mentality is against all the rules of sustainability.
The Committed collection is part of its Take Action programme, showing Mango it is acknowledging a shift in consumer attitudes. More commitment, more action, less mindless production. The Committed collection is a step in the right direction (and there’s a great organic cotton sweatshirt).
Jack Wills has opened up their factories for everyone to see where their clothes are made, in a positive move that goes one further than simply listing factory names and locations. Good to see a brand taking a holistic approach across its whole range.
Such a huge output, it’s difficult to assess what is made where, but special mention goes to ASOS Made in Kenya, all made at the SOKO factory, a manufacturing unit with social and environmental issues at the heart of its business. Always worth checking.
The only truly fair-trade brand with a serious presence on the high street, available from John Lewis – great for jewellery, too. A brand with a supply chain and principles for the rest to aspire to.