What are fast fashion brands doing to tackle fashion’s sustainability problem?

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Image credit: courtesy of Zara 

The environmental and ethical issues surrounding fast fashion are no secret, and have only escalated in recent years. The world now consumes in excess of 100 billion pieces of clothing a year, according to a report by McKinsey. As a whole, the industry is responsible for 92 million tons of waste dumped in landfills every year. Meanwhile, a 2017 report found 35 per cent of microplastic pollution comes from washing synthetic textiles – much of which is produced by fast fashion brands. 

Retailers are now starting to increase their efforts to address the problems. Last week, Zara owner Inditex announced a new series of sustainability initiatives, including the goal for 100 per cent of its cotton, linen and polyester to be sustainable by 2025. “Sustainability is a never-ending task in which everyone here at Inditex is involved,” Pablo Isla, the company’s executive chairman, said of the announcement. “We aspire to play a transformational role in the industry.”

H&M is another brand that’s working towards a more sustainable model. “The fashion industry cannot continue to operate in the way it does currently; our planet doesn’t have the resources,” Giorgina Waltier, sustainability manager for H&M in the UK and Ireland, tells Vogue. The retailer, along with brands including Uniqlo, Mango and Asos, has been growing its eco-conscious collection in recent years, as well as launching a wave of green initiatives. 

Brands taking action is no doubt a positive step forward. “Sustainability is a journey,” says Amina Razvi, the new executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “Assessing where you are and making ambitious commitments to improve impacts is the right place to start.” 

But how – if at all possible – can fast fashion reduce its impact on the environment? “The key issue is the lack of consensus of what is meant by ‘sustainable’ and particularly ‘sustainable fabrics’,” comments Charlotte Turner, head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age. It’s essential that retailers aren’t guilty of so-called green-washing. “It’s important to see brands take action, but this should be meaningful and well informed,” she adds. “It is difficult to reconcile reducing environmental impact with a business model built on delivering increasing volumes of products at ever-cheaper prices.” 

Vogue takes a look at some of the key environmental commitments made by five fast fashion retailers – and decodes what they really mean. 

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