Clothes that help save the planet are the latest trend. But are shoppers who embrace 'sustainable' ranges having the (recycled) wool pulled over their eyes?
Like many people, I worry about how my everyday choices affect the planet, from the food I eat to the clothes I wear.
And as someone who likes to dress well — and can't resist the lure of a discount rail — I was horrified to learn that the fashion and textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, second only to oil, according to the UN.
Every stage in the life cycle of our clothing causes damage to the natural world, from toxic chemicals used in factories to the carbon footprint of shipping goods globally, which is partly why the clothing industry is responsible for more than 8 per cent of all the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, things are changing. Walk into any High Street shop, or click onto an online store, and you'll find ranges claiming to be 'conscious', 'better' or 'eco'. It all sounds great, but are all sustainable items equally saintly?
Take Asos's Responsible Edit, described as a 'one-stop home' for environmentally-conscious clothing, accessories and living items from different brands featured on the website. One of the first products to come up is a recycled T-shirt.
The description is promising: 'Made with recycled cotton. Instead of ending up in landfill, clothes and textile waste are reclaimed and turned into new fibres. This saves water and energy. Bonus: it reduces C02 emissions, too.'
It doesn't tell me exactly how much cotton is recycled, but it's the next line that makes me pause before clicking 'add to bag'. It describes the fabric as 50 per cent cotton, 50 per cent polyester.
Can a T-shirt that contains polyester really be considered environmentally-conscious? Admittedly, polyester can be recycled, but not if — as in this case — it's blended with another material, as mixed fibres cannot be recycled.
As the fashion industry has no standard to define sustainability, a garment can be labelled 'sustainable' even if it contains only 1 per cent organic cotton or is combined with a man-made synthetic fabric.
Asos said that, for a product to feature in its Responsible Edit range, it must contain 50 per cent sustainable materials at a minimum; the only exception to this is recycled cotton, which has a lower threshold (20 per cent) due to technical limitations with the fibre.
'If a brand sells an item as sustainable, then usually something on the label says why — but not always,' says Tamsin Lejeune, CEO of Common Objective, a tech platform designed to make it easy for fashion professionals to work sustainably.
It's positive to see big brands taking action, but are they just telling shoppers what they want to hear? Inditex, the world's largest clothes producer and owner of Zara, promises all its clothes will be made from sustainable fabrics by 2025.
H&M vows to use 100 per cent sustain-able cotton by 2020, and ensure all its products are made from sustainably sourced materials by 2030.
Maxine Bedat is the founder of the New Standard Institute (NSI), a scientific organisation focused on improving sustainability in fashion. She is concerned that brands merely pay lip service.
'It almost feels like sustainable fashion is the latest trend,' she says. 'I question whether a lot of brands are truly reducing impact — or just trying to be trendy.'
While she praises the commitments of Zara to stop using hazardous chemicals by 2020 and H&M's promise to ensure workers are paid fairly, she believes their biggest vow — to eventually use 100 per cent sustainable fabrics — is 'so loosely defined as to be meaningless'.
The NSI has created a 'measuring stick of sustainability' called the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which tallies a company's total carbon, water and chemical footprint, and requires them to make these details public.
A number of brands, including Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Kering (the group that owns Gucci) use this system, but the majority of High Street retailers have yet to sign up.
While some use other measures, many keep their figures private. Mango says between 2017 and 2018 it doubled the number of garments produced sustainably and plans to 'increase' the percentage of sustainable fabrics used in all collections, but hasn't yet stated its figures publicly.
An INDITEX spokesman said: 'We produce durable, high-quality fashion which customers can wear again and again. We strive to create products that are not only right for our customers, but right for the people who create them, and work in partnership with suppliers, unions, governments and other brands to do so.
'We know where our garments are made and the social and environmental conditions in which they are produced, and our suppliers must follow our stringent code of conduct which emphasizes workers' rights.
'Sustainability is a neverending goal and we have set very specific commitments and targets, notably that by 2025, we will use only organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, polyester and linen.'
Asos says it transparently and publicly reports its uptake of sustainable fibres each year via the Textile Exchange benchmark. The number of clothes it sells that are made from recycled materials varies over time, so it is not able to give a fixed percentage on this.
'We're working to increase our use of recycled fibres as these are always preferable to virgin fibres. We recognise the importance of designing products with recyclability in mind from the start, which is why we've partnered with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. We have many varied commitments, of which training our designers on circular design is just one.'
An H&M spokesperson said they display the precise material composition of every single garment they sell online.
'For a material to be labelled as Conscious, at least 50 per cent of the material composition must be recycled or sustainably sourced. This is the minimum requirement, but a lot of our Conscious garments far exceed this.
'One of our goals is to use 100 per cent sustainably sourced or recycled materials by 2030 — currently 57 per cent of the materials we use meet this standard.
'H&M group will never decide for itself whether a material can be considered sustainable. We follow the Textile Exchange's Preferred Fiber & Materials benchmark to establish the sustainability credentials of a material; and for us to class a material as sustainable, it must also meet the independent accreditation requirements of a relevant third-party body.'
Mango did not respond to a request for a comment.
Here's our guide on how to shop sustainably — and whether you can do it on the High Street.
Can polyester be a sustainable fabric?
Polyester is the world's most commonly used fibre, but the chemical process by which it is made from crude oil releases pollutants into the atmosphere, depletes finite resources and does not easily biodegrade. Worse, if it's blended with other fibres, such as cotton, it cannot be recycled.
A more sustainable alternative is said to be recycled polyester, which forms much of H&M's Conscious collection. Mainly made from recycled plastic bottles, it takes between 30 and 50 per cent less energy to make, doesn't use up oil reserves and reduces the amount of polyester disposed in landfill.
But each time plastic is reheated for recycling it degrades, so it cannot be recycled indefinitely.
Then there's the problem of polyester garments releasing plastic microfibres into water when washed. Already, 110kg of micro-fibres enter waterways daily for every 100,000 people — the equivalent of the pollution caused by about 15,000 plastic bags.
Recycled polyester might be even worse at shedding plastic microparticles. 'Reports on water contaminated as a result of synthetic clothes being washed found recycled fabrics are the worst; they degraded more in water,' says Tamsin Lejeune. 'You can't call a recycled polyester collection sustainable.'
TOP TIP: Check labels and avoid all polyester, whether recycled or not.
What cotton labels should I look for?
The term 'sustainable cotton' is used by High Street retailers, but there's no set definition.
It can refer to five different initiatives, from Certified Organic which strictly monitors pesticide and insecticide use, to Fairtrade which guarantees farmers a fair minimum price for their cotton, and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) which tries to improve the social, economic and environmental outcomes for farmers.
But BCI, which Zara and Mango grow their cotton in line with, has been criticised for its tolerance of pesticides and GM crops, as well as its lack of clear figures about how much water it aims to reduce in cotton production.
'There's a difference between BCI which is slightly sustainable, and things like organic cotton and Fairtrade cotton which have specifics,' says ethical trade consultant Clare Lissman, who would rather see brands subscribing to Certified Organic and Fairtrade.
'Ticking the lowest denominator and saying 'we're sustainable' makes me uncomfortable.'
TOP TIP: Look for cotton labelled 'Certified Organic' or 'Fairtrade' rather than just 'sustainable'.
Are other fabrics more eco-friendly?
they are a mixed bunch at best. Viscose, a cellulose fibre made from wood pulp, creates more greenhouse emissions than cotton production and the annual logging of more than 70 million trees.
So recent years have seen the rise of sustainable alternatives like Lyocell which use less energy than cotton — and now, in a bid to save the trees, even newer options are being produced using proteins and fibres found in everyday items, such as milk, orange and coffee.
Nylon is favoured for its durability, but it's made using crude oil and emits high levels of C02.
One new brand, Econyl, uses nylon waste from landfills and oceans to create an infinitely recyclable material, used by the likes of Prada, and reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80 per cent. These new options are eco-friendly, but are considerably more costly. They aren't widely seen on the High Street.
TOP TIP: Don't buy viscose or nylon — seek alternatives such as Lyocell and Econyl.
Our buying habits must change
Last year, we in the UK sent 235 million items of clothing to landfill, and this is increasing. A recent study predicted that this summer, Britons will spend £2.7 billion on 50.3 million outfits they will wear once.
'The more research that comes out, the clearer it is that continually buying lots of cheap stuff is inherently in contradiction with sustainability,' says Lejeune.
Fast fashion has been growing rapidly, from High Street brands such as Zara which produces 500 new designs a week, to online retailers like Boohoo and Missguided which sell copies of catwalk clothes for £5. It's the main reason so much clothing goes into landfill.
TOP TIP: Set a challenge to avoid buying clothes and make use of what's in your wardrobe instead.
Why can't we just recycle?
'circular fashion' is the idea that we can use unwanted clothes to create new ones by recycling fabric. Asos has committed to train all its teams in circular design by 2020, while H&M offers customers a £5 voucher in exchange for unwanted clothes, promising they'll be reused, reworn or recycled, with nothing going to landfill.
The company says 50-60 per cent of textiles are sorted for re-wear, about 35-45 per cent are recycled, and 3-7 per cent used as combustibles for energy production.
But Maxine Bedat says it's not always the case with other schemes like this, as typically only 1 per cent of clothing can be recycled into new material. Even then, it is mostly blended fabric with some new raw materials needed.
She advises spending more on clothing that will last: 'But if you do have clothing you want to recycle, give it to charity as they can at least get the proceeds.'
TOP TIP: Buy quality not quantity — and give old clothes to charity instead of recycling.
And what about the workers?
The natural world isn't the only issue. With labour conditions, things are more complicated.
'You've got to benefit people and the planet,' says Lissman. 'The increased interest in sustainability is brilliant, but it's also important to change conditions for workers [many of whom are subcontracted, rather than directly employed] — even if that's harder as it's something brands have less control over.'
This difficulty might be why brands are so happy to focus on sustainability instead.
H&M has been praised for its aim to achieve living wages for staff, but other big companies have yet even to make promises about paying workers better.
TOP TIP: Ethical fashion apps such as Good On You show which brands pay a living wage.
Are we making things worse?
experts say there are negative effects of the 'ethical' High Street ranges. That's because they create the assumption that it's possible to have sustainable clothes that are also dirt cheap.
Lejeune says this is not the case: 'If you factor in the cost of paying people well enough to eat and live, and the environmental cost, the cost of making ethical clothing would be higher than the price these ranges are sold for. That's the bottom line.'
'In my experience, these ranges are often subsidised — sold for around a third less than they cost to produce. It's often with good intent, because brands want to demonstrate the range sells, and don't want to price it higher than everything else in store.'
The problem is when brands produce subsidised sustainable ranges, customers assume it's possible to be green and cheap, so are reluctant to spend more at small businesses doing best practice with sustainability, but — by necessity — charging more.
A H&M spokesperson said the company doesn't disclose pricing information as it is commercially sensitive but said its pricing method is consistent across all ranges as the goal is 'to democratise all fashion'. Asos said it does not subsidise products or sell at cost.
There are positive examples such as Topshop, successfully selling ethical jewellery brand Made at high prices that reflect production costs. Asos believes its size and influence are an advantage, allowing the company to push for lasting, meaningful change at a wider scale.
Lejeune praises UK firms such as Garthenor Organic Ltd, the world's first producer of 100 per cent Certified Organic wool, and Ninety Percent, a womenswear label sharing 80 per cent of distributed profits with charities and 10 per cent with workers.
TOP TIP: Seek out smaller retailers and be prepared to pay more.
Borrow, swap or rent - don't buy
Swap Rebellion (facebook.com/SwapRebellion) encourages people to swap clothes; Higher Studio (higher.studio) loans designer clothes to subscribers from £85 a month.
Other rental options are mywardrobehq.com from £70, and the high end frontrow.uk.com which offers the likes of Versace and Prada for several hundred pounds a day.
TOP TIP: Look for clothes swaps or use getswishing.com to set one up.
By Radhika Sanghani for Daily Mail