Recently I got chatting with the incredibly knowledgeable Amy Nguyen, Founder & Editor of Sustainable & Social, and we shared our combined frustration of the fashion industry’s lies. From common misconceptions, to greenwashed myths, to – quite frankly – downright lies, we ended up turning our rant into a constructive list of untruths perpetuated by the fashion industry, here to share with you today!
11 Fashion Lies To Look Out For…
As you can probably tell from both of our feeds (@besmacc and @sustainableandsocial), Amy and I love fashion. It’s not our mission to turn you away from fashion – in fact, quite the opposite! What we are trying to do is highlight the importance of being savvy when it comes to fashion marketing. The age of blindly following what brands advertise is over. Vague promises and opaque supply chains are so 1995…
We hope this guide will enable you to suss out the fashion lies commonly told, and curate a more responsible wardrobe over time. Plus let us know if there’s anything we missed too!
Lie #1: Fast Fashion Is ‘Democratising Fashion For All’
Saying fast fashion is lying about something is basically going for the low-hanging fruit. However, I wanted to kick off this listicle with one of the most common defences I saw when compiling my guide on fast fashion brands, and explain how this is flawed.
Fashion, and notably sustainable fashion, can be expensive. When I explored this back in October, I also recognised that there are other barriers to entry, such as time to research new brands and their sustainability credentials, access to these brands (often online as opposed to on the high street), and on our part, a willingness to sacrifice our usual shopping habits to instead simply shop less.
Fast fashion brands like Boohoo and In The Style claim their low prices ensure that their “products are in everyone’s reach, not just those with lots of disposable cash”. This aggressive marketing tactic of touting “trend-led styles at affordable prices” doesn’t just frame fashion as a commodity everyone deserves – it says fashion is something everyone needs.
On one hand, I agree that everyone deserves access to clothes that are comfortable, functional, and fit social norms. Everyone deserves to feel good. But the clothes that these brands are touting are often uncomfortable, ill-fitting, and barely functional. The vast majority of the styles they sell are not designed for practicality, they’re designed for nights out, special occasions, and showing off for Instagram. And hey, everyone deserves outfits that also work for these occasions too, but do they really need 36,000 options (as Boohoo stocked on my last count)?
The real lie here is that fast fashion brands are not providing access to fashion that was previously out of reach due to price, exclusivity, or some other reason. If they were, their clothes would be comparable in quality, fit, and style to higher end brands. Instead, they’ve reduced the quality, the fit, and to be brutally honest, the style of the clothing they make, to a degree that makes their clothes so cheap they cost less than a meal deal. Their clothes are literally disposable. And they’re exploiting their workforce, the planet, and their own customers in the process.
Lie #2: Using Sustainable Materials = Sustainable Fashion
Next up, let’s talk about how greenwashed the word “sustainable” has become in the fashion industry. I still use the phrase ‘sustainable fashion’ across my content to signify the niche I work in, but honestly, it’s almost all used up. From fast fashion brands to high street brands to high end brands, it seems so long as you’re using some form of sustainable material, you get to be part of a sustainable edit.
The lie: a piece of clothing is not sustainable just because it’s made from a sustainable fabric. The brand, designers, and shareholders also need to also consider:
- The fair treatment and safe working conditions of the people who make their clothes
- The employment of adults to make their clothes, even if the ILO says 15-year-olds is fine
- The mapping of their supply chain and make this information publicly available
- The reduction of their energy consumption, water consumption, and waste creation
- The accountability of their end-of-life clothes, and how they support take-back schemes and textile recycling (either internally or through a third party)
Oh, and that’s the bare minimum I would consider for use of the word “sustainable” by any fashion brand. Not just recycled polyester.
Lie #3: Higher Price = Higher Quality Garments
A higher price doesn’t necessarily represent a higher quality garment, unfortunately. The lie here is that the price you pay is proportional to the quality you receive – in fact, there’s many things that your money goes towards. That price might go towards huge marketing budgets, huge retail distribution, or straight into the huge pockets the founders, directors, and shareholders. This is why transparent pricing is so important – we can see a fair price is paid for labour, materials, tax, etc. And that translates to quality.
And while we’re here, let me just say: higher end fashion can still be fast fashion. So you paid £225 for your Tailored Long Coat in Dusty Yellow. So what? COS, aka H&M, doesn’t care.
If you don’t believe me, give this video by Justine Leconte a watch. She quite literally unpicks how COS cuts corners in the manufacture of their garments, only employing good quality sewing where visible to the wearer. Those clothes are not made to last, even if COS likes to tell you they are.
Lie #4: Clothes Sizes Are Consistent At Each Brand
We all know clothes sizes changes from brand to brand, and even era to era. But did you know that sizes are often inconsistent across larger high street and fast fashion brands?
I learned about this again from Justine Leconte when she reviewed ASOS. The explanation is simple: big brands work with multiple suppliers to manufacture the same designs. It can lead to huge discrepancies between size and fit across pieces from the same brand, and often can differ from what’s shown on the model (if sold online) too.
And even if designs are consistent – for example, COS likes to use a drop shoulder across its garments – the execution is far from uniform.
Lie #5: Clothes Labels Accurately Describe Clothing Care
Did you know clothes labels can often be a sort of “insurance policy” for fashion brands? This is a lie I only learned about this year, with many brands putting ‘hand-wash only’ and ‘dry clean only’ labels in garments to deter customers from returning shrunk, misshapen, ruined garments that were never made for real life wearability.
This article on Reviewed.com states ‘Clothing manufacturers put [hand-wash only] on items made from fragile materials, with complex construction, or even ones that have simply never been tested in a washing machine.’
Now, I’m not trying to say that everything with a ‘hand-wash only’ label can secretly be washed in the washing machine. The lie here is that these items have been tested and found to require hand washing only. In reality, many aren’t tested at all, and it was simply based on the design or fabric choices that the label was applied.
To help improve the life of our clothes, circularity charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation is advocating for fashion brands and manufacturers to ensure clothes styles can be worn and washed at least 30 times. In their Jeans Redesign programme, they made sure all the designs were wearable after 30 washes. This should be an industry standard, and adequate wash-ability (!) should always be the responsibility of the brand and manufacturer.
Lie #6: Clothes Labels Accurately Describe Material Composition
Next up is one of Amy’s grouches with clothes labels. The composition labels that appear hidden in your clothes are meant to accurately describe material composition, when in reality, shoppers are likely to be misled by inaccurate composition claims on labels 41% of the time.
From this research, it’s blended materials are often mislabeled – the deviations are most likely to occur in blended fabrics such as cotton and polyester combinations. This research comes from the Circle Economy & Ministry for Infrastructure and Waterways (via a survey of 10,000 items using a Fibersort machine). How can we combat it? Go for mono-material items, which are also better for fabric recycling, and call for more transparency in the fashion industry!
Lie #7: Synthetic Fibres Are More Sustainable Than Cotton
Recycled and regenerated fibres are the up-and-coming stars of the textile world, but are they really all that sustainable? Personally, I would rather go for a natural material than recycled polyester, but it seems not only are recycled man-made fibres being given more of a spotlight than cottons and wools, but even traditional synthetic fibres!
This huge lie has been reinforced by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, Amy notes, which pins pollutive synthetic fibres like polyester as more sustainable than fibres such as cotton. Personally, I’m interested to know on what basis this ranking occurs, but unfortunately the index is only available to paying members.
Even worse news: the latest BoF Sustainability Index report outlined that two thirds of the companies surveyed indicated they use the Higg Index to monitor environmental performance in their manufacturing supply chain. Which means these brands are being hugely influenced to use synthetic fibres in sustainable collections…
Lie #8: Recycled Polyester Is Recyclable
Following on from Lie #2 and Lie #7… Amy notes that we have seen in recent times increased volumes of recycled polyester (PET) used in “conscious” fashion collections. It’s touted as sustainable, but often that’s only in the sense of sourcing recycled polyester as opposed to virgin polyester… It is not always the most sustainable option, but most likely the cheapest one.
Recycled polyester has some benefits, for example, it is creating value from waste. A 2017 research study found that manufacturing rPET generates 79% less carbon emissions than producing its virgin counterpart.
However, garments made from recycled polyester (rPET) and plastic bottles are not always designed with circularity in mind. They cannot be recycled infinitely because each time the plastic is re-heated, it degrades the plastic and makes it less durable. The lie here: recycled polyester is recyclable. Unfortunately while it can be recycled, often it’s not, with companies and councils struggling to recycle these materials because they lack the machinery that is able to break down the components of the fibre correctly. And even if they do have the machinery: it can’t be recycled infinitely.
Lie #9: Clothes Returns Are Resold Or Recycled
Recently I shared a bad experience I had with a second-hand purchase on Depop. Many commenters chimed in with the same thing: ugh, I hate that you can’t return items when shopping second-hand! But did you know that even with first-hand purchases, your returns are very likely not going back on the hanger?
Amy points out that the big misconception here is that our returns are always processed, resold, given to charities or disposed of correctly.
In actual fact, many of our returns, especially fast fashion purchases and any other low-cost items, sit in the warehouses when they are returned, before they are sent to landfill or incinerated.
According to BBC Earth, 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns each year. Even worse: it’s estimated that only 20% of these returns are actually defective.
And this waste is an intersectional issue, with The OR Foundation writing an open letter highlighting how these returns are being shipped to countries like Ghana, to be sorted out there. The waste is being dumped here, with much of it burned in open air, and bales so unsafe they took the life of a worker.
Lie #10: Certifications Guarantee Social Sustainability
One thing I look for when checking out a new fashion brand for their sustainability credentials is third-party certifications. There are certifications out there that commend businesses for all sorts of things: living wages, fair working conditions and high environmental standards, to name a few.
What I don’t see when looking at these credentials is the limitations of these multi-stakeholder initiatives and certification standards. Amy’s gripe: many certification schemes have become a routine box ticking exercises for brands, a PR pat on the back, and viewed as an instant panacea to many of their social/environmental challenges across the supply chain.
Let’s take cotton as an example. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a membership platform that provides certification to fashion brands and manufacturers for using cotton that is supposedly better than uncertified fibres. Yet the BCI does not guarantee farmers are paid the correct market price for their cotton. It also does not trace the fibre fully across the supply chain. Unless it does so with multiple audits, it is open to corruption. And we have witnessed the fallout from this recently, with the BCI taking steps in Autumn 2020 to suspend its activities with licensed farmers in the Xinjiang region of China, where over a fifth of its ‘better’ cotton was produced. At the same time, brands like John Lewis and Marks & Spencer were selling BCI garments under the pretence of sustainable cotton.
This is just one such example, and it shows how complex fashion’s supply chains are, as well as how susceptible they are to exploitation. Third-party certification is merely a sticking plaster over the wider problem. Changing Markets Foundation‘s report, The false promise of certification, is well worth a read if you want to learn more.
Lie #11: Sustainable Fashion Indexes Are Unbiased & 100% Trustworthy
As you can probably tell from the subtitle, the lie here is that sustainable fashion indexes are not subject to bias and only list truly sustainable brands.
In the majority of cases, sustainable fashion indexes only include brands who have actively applied to be part of their index. They may have had to provide reports and data, and potentially even paid for the privilege, but these indexes are blinkered and constrained by factors such as funding, data collection, and tertiary research (as opposed to primary research, where they would physically and independently audit brands’ entire supply chains).
I had a talk with another friend recently who also shared an interesting lens from which to view these indexes: they reflect brand transparency, not true sustainability. Often, the brands that are doing better than average across their supply chains and planetary impact make this information more publicly available, and go out of their way to get it certified or recognised elsewhere. Indexes provide ample marketing opportunities and clout. Let’s take a look at some of the issues with a few industry-leading indexes…
Issues With BoF’s Sustainability Index
BoF has a firm methodology when it comes to its Sustainability Index, but its focus is on “15 of the largest companies by revenue” in the fashion industry. In my opinion, to relate the index to ‘Sustainability’ is misleading, as what it’s actually trying to do is highlight how well these 15 multi-nationals are doing on their way to achieving global climate goals and social imperatives over the next 10 years. That’s not sustainability – that’s survivability. For businesses that big, the question remains if they can ever truly be sustainable…
Issues With Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index
Fashion Revolution publishes an annual Transparency Index, looking at the world’s 250 largest fashion brands and ranking them based on how transparent they are about their supply chain. Last year, H&M topped the chart, and they were quick to call themselves “The World’s Most Transparent Brand”. Except, of course, they weren’t. They may have been best in show out of the world’s largest 250 brands, but they’re nowhere close to full transparency, having scored 73 out of 100, and they hadn’t been compared with all of the world’s brands either.
Fashion Revolution caveats their report by saying transparency leads to increased accountability and positive change, but that’s often overlooked, even by its top rated brands apparently.
Issues With The Higg Index
In 2020, the Higg Sustainability Index (MSI), came under scrutiny from the silk, leather and alpaca wool sectors for using outdated life cycle assessment information. They were criticised for harsh scores of these materials against less sustainable alternatives, such as polyester, which sheds microfibres at an alarming rate.
The Higg Index is a self-proclaimed ‘trusted tool’ to measure and score the environmental impacts of materials. Yet, accordingly to research conducted by Apparel Insider, they fail to publish transparent information on which life cycle assessment data is used for the MSI scores!!!
…Now, we’re not saying all certifications can’t be trusted, but take them with a pinch of salt. Only if you know the certification’s methodology and limitations can you truly get a full picture!