As we continue to ride the wave of ethical fashion into 2019, I’m starting a new series looking into brands that appear ethical, but deserve a little digging. First up: ARKET. Is ARKET’s clothing truly ethical?
I first came across ARKET after a friend recommended the store to me. She’s usually spot on when it comes to ethical choices, so I was a little taken aback at the sheer scale and speed at which ARKET has popped up – whizzing past the usual slow, steady path that my favourite ethical brands tread.
This month, I visited two ARKET stores for a look around, and purchased this mohair cardigan too. It’s warm, soft, and judging from my first few wears, well made. But is it ethical? I wanted to know more – and I imagine if you’re here, you want to know more too.
Defining ethical fashion
Before I started my review of ARKET (and similar brands over a subsequent set of posts), I wanted to establish what ethical fashion means. In my guide to switching to ethical fashion, I explained that there are a few different buzzwords being thrown around that actually mean different things:
- Slow fashion: clothes that are not governed by seasonal trends, classics, investment pieces
- Sustainable fashion: clothes made from materials and practices that are earth-friendly
- Ethical or fair fashion: clothes that pay a fair wage to their producers, garment workers, etc.
So while I’m using the phrase ethical fashion here, I’ll be considering how ARKET measures up to all three…
So, who is ARKET?
ARKET is a relatively new fashion brand, starting on London’s Regent Street in August 2017 and online. The prime real estate was easily snapped up because ARKET is one branch of the H&M Group empire. Over the last year, they have quietly popped up across Europe and the UK too – now calling the Birmingham’s Bullring, Kent’s Bluewater Shopping Centre, Liverpool’s Paradise Street, and Stratford’s Westfield Centre home.
Let’s make it clear: I’m not one to sniff at an ethical arm of a not-so-ethical business. Burt’s Bees is a similar situation, and I’d rather big businesses see how there truly is a demand for ethical business and invest in better practices, than ignore it altogether.
H&M have definitely played around with ethical fashion too. Their Conscious Collection alone makes them one of the largest buyers of organic cotton, and we need that to keep growing.
However, ARKET is seemingly marketing themselves under the phrase “ethical fashion”; their Google Ads pop up every time I search the phrase. So, how do they really measure up?
What does ARKET stand for?
ARKET calls themselves a modern-day market, offering essential products for men, women, children and the home. At first glance, they look like a blend of A.P.C. and Uniqlo: block colours and simple cuts dominate their collection.
ARKET even dabbles with disarming sketches, and attest to a Nordic heritage (rather than French or Japanese). Their name means “sheet of paper” in Swedish.
So far, I’m drooling over the aesthetics and storytelling. Their prices are also mid-range for the high street, which feels like a good deal for “well-made, durable products, designed to be used and loved for a long time”.
Is ARKET ethical?
Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. What lies behind the beautiful brand?
Ethical fashion brands ensure that the raw material growers, thread spinners, and garment workers are paid fairly and work in a safe environment. As we’ve seen from many documentaries, this isn’t a given, so the first question I’m posing is: does ARKET treat its workers fairly?
After an unsuccessful enquiry to ARKET, I was directed to H&M’s overarching Sustainability Report. When looking at H&M’s huge supplier list and their supplier compliance table, it’s impossible to see which factories serve ARKET, and which factories serve the rest of the H&M empire.
On the basis that all these factories serve ARKET, I feel uncomfortable to report that:
- 75% of all their factories lack any trade union representation
- 73% of all their factories go over legal monthly overtime limits
- 72% of all their EMEA factories do not provide legal conditions for workers younger than 18
- 0% of all Far East factories pay the legal minimum hourly wage
While I appreciate the report does tick the transparency box, it doesn’t make H&M or ARKET look good. It’s also impossible to see which factories do well, which ones don’t, or the ethics of each item of clothing. It means as a shopper, I can only make one decision – to buy, or not to buy from ARKET.
And based on this data, how is ARKET any different from H&M, & Other Stories, Afound, Cheap Monday, Cos, Monki, or Weekday? None of them are ethical.
Is ARKET sustainable?
Sustainable fashion is all about raw materials. On a typical sustainable fashion rail, you’ll find bamboo, organic cotton, wool reared ethically, and upcycled or recycled materials. While there’s much debate around the treatment and water usage for each of these, there’s a general consensus that these materials are of a lower impact than their usual counterparts.
On ARKET’s mannequins, you’ll find a combination of these materials, as well as elastane, polyamide, polyester, viscose. It’s good to see their yoga wear is principally made from recycled polyamide and polyester, but virgin polyamide and polyester can be found elsewhere.
In truth, it’s unclear how much of ARKET’s range is sustainable. Organic cotton items don’t tell you the percentage organic, or if they’re GOTS certified. Some wool garments are explicitly stated as non-museled, some are Responsible Wool Standard certified, others aren’t.
I did appreciate where buttons were identified as mother of pearl, and of animal-origin. If you’re into vegan fashion, it seems you can shop with confidence at ARKET.
However, it’s hard to tell if there’s any real focus on sustainability, or if it’s simply an added extra here and there.
Is ARKET slow fashion?
Slow fashion is all about careful creation, and often, seasonless garments.
ARKET’s stores definitely give the impression of slow fashion: well-lit, sparsely decorated, and with their own in-store cafés, you can sign a breath of relief upon entering. The classic Nordic interiors and good coffee definitely hail back to the hygge trend of yesteryear, and they also only serve vegetarian and vegan food. I like that there’s a place where you can sit and contemplate your purchases before heading to the checkout – it gives you a chance to mindfully plan what you need, and what rule out what you don’t.
ARKET’s archive collection is the core of its clothing, and has been designed to last through the seasons – fashion and nature alike. That doesn’t mean it is seasonless, though. Taking my cardigan as an example, I found it in their post-Christmas sale with a percentage reduction. Yet it’s now sat on their New Arrivals page in two new colours: green and pink, evidently for Spring.
What does ARKET say?
With all brands I look into, I prefer to work with them rather than against them. I got in touch with ARKET to ask them four vital questions:
- Who makes ARKET’s clothing?
- Do you ensure your workers are in a safe and healthy environment? If so, how?
- Do you use sustainable materials?
- How many seasons does ARKET produce each year?
ARKET responded in a record 48 hours, but that’s about as good as it gets. Their response was a simple copy-and-paste answer, with absolutely no new information, nor any answers to the questions I’d asked:
“As part of the H&M group, we follow the same sustainability regulations and consciousness promise. You can read all about our involvement in sustainability, through our Corporate Social Responsibility here.”
As frustrating as that is, I wasn’t expecting much. It may be years before ARKET – and H&M – achieve full transparency, and that will only be after implementing good ethics in their factories and third party factories too.
ARKET isn’t an ethical fashion brand. Its factories are shared with the rest of the H&M empire, and that means its garment worker policies are too.
ARKET does use sustainable materials, but not as a principle. Just like H&M Conscious, you can find plenty of organic cotton pieces, as well as well-scouted picks from sustainable brands in-store. If sustainable materials are important to you, make sure to check each garment when shopping at ARKET.
ARKET is the high street equivalent of a slow fashion brand. ARKET certainly puts Nordic design and durability at the forefront, going against the usual high street trends, which is brave. Whether its collections are completely seasonless is yet to be seen, and the fact it uses economies of scale to increase production and reduce prices means the care and attention isn’t quite there. However, I do think it introduces the average consumer to a new way of shopping, and that paves the way for more ethical fashion brands – which is always a good thing.