It’s time for another sustainable fashion deep-dive, and this time it’s a high street giant: Monsoon. Oh Monsoon, you used to make me swoon. You were the place I visited for prom dress dreams and wedding attire inspiration. When I was a teenager, I would skulk between the floor-length dresses and dream of days where I would be tall enough to wear them. But since my switch to ethical fashion, Monsoon dropped off my radar completely.
Well, having just announced their plans to make 50% of their SS20 collection sustainable, with significant sustainable improvements throughout 2020, Monsoon has suddenly become an object of my interest again. Could they really make the leap to 50% sustainable clothes? It’s not so far off 100% at that rate…
Here’s my review of how one of my high street favourites is prioritising sustainability (and whether they’re doing enough):
What Makes a Fashion Brand Sustainable?
To start, let’s get to grips with what sustainable fashion really means. To me, sustainable fashion covers three things:
- Social sustainability: having clear knowledge of who makes their clothes, and treating people ethically, with respect and fair pay.
- Environmental sustainability: using natural and regenerated materials, and reducing energy and water use, as well as avoiding harmful chemicals.
- Slowing down production: reducing the amount of clothing the brand produces each year.
In my previous reviews of ARKET, Everlane, and Matt & Nat, I called these slightly different terms, but really I’m looking for the same business-wide attitude of people and planet taking equal importance to profit.
I’ll also be adding a fourth element to my list going forwards: circularity. I want to see if brands are taking steps to encourage shoppers to return when their items need fixing, or recycling.
And of course, I want transparency across all of that. Including where there’s progress to be made, rather than hiding certain issues in the shadows.
1. Is Monsoon an Ethical Fashion Brand?
Last month, Monsoon approached me to share the news of their new S.E.W. Collection. (S.E.W. stands for Seeking an Eco-friendly World, a slightly odd acronym but let’s go with it.)
For background, Monsoon is a British retailer, founded by white British businessman Peter Simon (worth £480 million) in 1973. Its two brands, Monsoon and Accessorize, have 181 stores across the UK. Monsoon was also one of the retailers associated with the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013.
Channelling my inner Fashion Revolutionist, the first thing I wanted to find out was who made Monsoon’s clothes. So, I sent them a series of questions to find out.
Who makes Monsoon’s clothes?
“Monsoon and Accessorize have a variety of close suppliers that we have a long-standing relationship with – some of them have been working with us since the day we were set up in 1973. Our suppliers are located across India, China and a few are based in Turkey – we make our designs often in collaboration with them, as they have grown with our signature style and with us as a company.”
None of this actually says anything about who makes their clothes, or their treatment. I don’t believe in long-standing relationships – abusive relationships can last a lifetime.
Does Monsoon ensure workers are in a safe and healthy environment? If so, how?
“The workers in our supply chain are important to us and we want them to grow with our businesses, they are core to our products and our unique style.
Monsoon Accessorize is a founding member of the Ethical Trade Initiative, where workers’ rights have been part of the way we do business in all areas.
Our suppliers are inspected on an annual basis to check how they meet local law and our code of ethics, which is based on the ETI base code. Where there are challenges, we work together with our suppliers to resolve this and ensure our suppliers can recognise this in the future and offer better working conditions.
As we have such a close partnership with our suppliers, Monsoon Accessorize staff are often on-site to work together, inspect and collaborate on workers’ rights, including ensuring they are safe, and feel respected.”
So, what we can conclude from this is that Monsoon says all the right things. Oddly, they didn’t link me through to their Ethical Trade Report, which indicates they have 27 suppliers, and a flimsy Code of Conduct (updated August 2020) which covers their expectations for suppliers to pay living wages, not used forced labour, etc. but does not outline what will happen should these be broken. It also includes a series of spelling mistakes.
Their involvement in the Ethical Trade Initiative (E.T.I.) doesn’t say much either – H&M, Missguided, and Primark are also members, and I’d rank them as pretty low for their fair treatment of garment workers. In my review of H&M’s sub-brand, ARKET, I found out that 0% of all their Far East factories pay the legal minimum hourly wage, and that was plainly reported in their CSR Report for the year, without any action being outlined.
Saying that, brands like Oxfam, Traidcraft, and Thought Clothing are members of the E.T.I., so make of it what you will.
Monsoon also scored just 17/100 in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, which shows they have a lot of work to do in making their practices clearer.
Overall: there’s no clarity as to who makes Monsoon’s clothes, and not much effort being made to ensure fair wages and labour practices either.
2. Is Monsoon a Sustainable Fashion Brand?
Next, let’s look at the materials Monsoon uses. In my guide to sustainable fabrics, I highlighted how natural fabrics tend to be better for the planet (and organic even better), although regenerated materials are also good to look for. Alongside that, processes that reduce energy-use, water-use, and carbon emissions are all good things to highlight.
What sustainable materials does Monsoon use?
Over 50% of our SS20 clothing range will be made from sustainable materials including:
Lyocell, Tencel, Ecovero: These are viscose fabrics derived from certified renewable wood sources which are friendly to our forests. Using eco-responsible production methods, 50% less water is used which generates up to 50% lower emissions and water impact than traditional viscose, contributing to a cleaner environment. It has been certified with the EU Ecolabel, meaning it has consistently high environmental standards, from raw material and production to distribution and disposal.
Recycled Polyester: Our recycled polyester is made from PET plastic bottles which are formed into strings of yarn, before being dyed and woven together to create a soft-touch texture.
Sustainable Denim: Each of our denim designs have been made from sustainably-sourced organic cotton which uses less water, energy and chemicals. This reduces the impact of its production on our environment, creating key wardrobe staples with a feel-good factor. Over 50% of our denim is made from sustainable materials including organic cotton and is set to improve further next season.
Linen: Naturally breathable, cool and lightweight, linen has long been regarded as a fabric favourite for the summer months. It’s made from the flax plant which relies solely on rainfall, grown without the use of GMOs and produces zero waste.
Organic Cotton: Over 70% of the cotton we use is organic cotton.
While new sustainable materials are popping up in the market, we continually trial and try innovative new fibres and materials.
All our sustainable products can be identified by their S.E.W labelling – Seeking an Eco-friendly World.
Ok, first let’s talk about this 50% commitment. If this was me handing a metaphorical school report to my dad, the first thing he’d ask is “what about the other 50%?!”
However, let’s give Monsoon a chance. The business has to make a case for the change to sustainable materials, proving to investors, shareholders, and any other sustainable fashion sceptics that this investment will pay off. And even 50% is a big leap.
This doesn’t get them off the hook though: they still have a huge way to go to transform their entire collection, and also start prioritising their people.
That said, they’re investing heavily in a large range of different, more sustainable materials. And not only that, they’re looking at the processes behind these materials too, reducing their impact across the board. Nice!
What is Monsoon’s S.E.W. Collection like?
I was kindly gifted this Lisbet Dress to get a real feel for Monsoon’s S.E.W. Collection. I’m delighted to report back that the dress is well made, with beautiful 100% viscose embroidery, displayed on 100% recycled polyester mesh. It also fits incredibly well, with well-placed hooks, a zip, and black panelling that keep it modest enough for a garden party!
I actually think Monsoon could do a better job of highlighting the materials for this dress on their site – I wasn’t sure if it was 100% recycled polyester until I received it. That said, a polyester dress can get a little sweaty, and for £150, you may be able to find a beautiful vintage dress made of a more breathable fabric…
3. Is Monsoon a Slow Fashion Brand?
Finally, let’s look at Monsoon’s overall business model. As a high-street brand, Monsoon will be under a lot of pressure to bring out numerous styles and keep up with their next door fast fashion competitors.
How Many Seasons Does Monsoon Produce Each Year?
We have two major seasonal collections a year – our Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer ranges.
Part of me really wants to believe this – and I can see a good case for only having two collections per year, too. Monsoon provides mid-range occasionwear, which could easily be split into two collections. But what about all the rest of its ranges? Bags, shoes, jeans, tops. Are they really hanging around for 6 months at a time?
Their website tells a different story. First, their Clearance section is the first button on the navigation bar. This tells me they have pieces dropping into Clearance all-year-round, which implies new items are popping up all-year-round too.
Second, their collections are so huge, I don’t see how these are all created and launched in two big hauls. Fashion brands that follow the traditional SS / AW model often have a smaller collection of pieces, with a theme or focus tying them all together. I don’t see this here, so I’m sceptical at best.
Is Monsoon a Circular Fashion Brand?
Despite the unclear speed at which Monsoon produces collections, it does seem like the brand is open to implementing circular systems. Hidden on their site is their Clothes for Life scheme, providing shoppers with in-store clothes recycling at all their stores.
Sadly, this seems to be a sticking plaster over the issue of circularity. Despite the cute recycling symbol on the page, what they’re actually doing is donating all items to Newlife, a charity supporting disabled children. That means it’s up to the charity to sell, recycle, or send these donations to landfill. This practice kind of misses the point – Monsoon should be aiming to recycle these fabrics back into their collections.
I also dislike that donating any garment at all will get you a £10 voucher for a £50 spend, incentivising you to buy more new product.
If this post was a TL;DR situation (2000+ words, I get it) here are my remarks overall:
1. Monsoon does not prioritise the people in its supply chain. Monsoon could be doing a lot more to ensure its third-party suppliers treat their workers fairly, and pay them fairly too.
While they are working with GoodWeave, a charity that supports children of the communities that make Monsoon’s clothing, there’s no mention of the workers themselves benefitting from charitable support, third-party auditing, or factories that work to an ISO standard.
In the UK, Monsoon is not an accredited Living Wage Employer either.
In all honesty, I’d like to see big brands reduce the number of factories they work with, and buy out the ones they use the most, making garment workers and other employees part of their company.
2. Monsoon has made a solid commitment to sustainable materials. I’m really pleased with how much of an effort Monsoon has made to use sustainable materials and reduce the impact of their fabric treatment processes too. Unlike ASOS or H&M, who commit to huge orders of organic cotton to greenwash their collections, Monsoon is using recycled and regenerated fabrics alongside tree-based fibres and other natural materials.
3. It’s unclear if Monsoon is a slow or circular fashion brand. Sadly I couldn’t tell if Monsoon really is reducing how much it designs, makes, and sells, and its recycling scheme is just a fancy charity donation box.
I also think Monsoon is missing a trick by not offering fashion rental for its high-end dresses, or having a selection in-store in collaboration with external designers or fashion rental services. It is one of the best-placed high street stores to start this, with clientele browsing for partywear, eveningwear, and bridalwear, who are happy to part with a little more money than your average fast fashion store could expect. Get on it Monsoon!
Disclaimer: This post contains gifted product (denoted 'gifted'). All views and opinions remain my own.