During the past week, the fashion industry has been the subject of much criticism and scrutiny, prompting accountability and calls for reform.

Let’s delve into headline stories that have disrupted the sector and explore the implications for brands, consumers, and the broader quest for sustainability.

When fashion brands fail to take accountability

The first bombshell dropped with the alleged exposé on well-known retailers H&M and Zara’s involvement in sourcing cotton tainted by illegal deforestation and exploitation in Brazil.

The report by Earthsight painted a grim picture of major retailers allegedly turning a blind eye to the environmental and social costs of their supply chains.

The revelation that cotton, labelled as ‘sustainable’ by Better Cotton, could be traced back to regions marred by deforestation and human rights abuses shattered the illusion of ethical consumption.

Earthsight’s director Sam Lawson said: “If you have cotton clothes, towels or bed sheets from H&M or Zara, they may well be stained by the plundering of the Cerrado. These firms talk about good practice, social responsibility and certification schemes, they claim to invest in traceability and sustainability, but all this now looks about as fake as their high street window arrangements.”

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In response to these allegations, Inditex and H&M reiterated their commitment to upholding industry best practices and have pledged to investigate the claims thoroughly.

However, mere reassurances are not enough. Tangible action, stringent regulations, and genuine accountability in the fashion industry mechanisms are imperative to effect meaningful change.

Lawson continued: “It has become very clear that crimes related to the commodities we consume have to be addressed through regulation, not consumer choices. That means lawmakers in consumer countries should put in place strong laws with tough enforcement. In the meantime, shoppers should think twice before buying their next piece of cotton clothing.”

The stark reality is that the pursuit of profit often comes at the expense of environmental degradation and human suffering. Despite lofty commitments to sustainability, brands like H&M and Zara stand accused of alleged greenwashing and prioritising profits over principles.

Accountability in the spotlight

Simultaneously, the Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2024 report delivered an indictment of five major fashion players, including Adidas, H&M Group, Inditex, Nike, and Fast Retailing.

The report’s assessment of the brand’s emission reduction plans and failure to address overproduction once again exposed the rift between rhetoric and reality in the fashion world.

Despite offering lip service to sustainability, “none of the five fashion companies commit to reducing overproduction or moving away from the fast fashion business model,” said the report.

According to the report, there had been an improvement in the emissions disclosure and target-setting practices of the five fashion retailers, both in the medium and long-term targets.

However, it remained unclear to what extent these measures taken by the companies would contribute to achieving their targets, and if they will be sufficient.

The authors of the report argued: “All the companies assessed mostly demonstrate awareness of what the key decarbonisation measures for the sector are. However, they present their planned measures in quite ambiguous terms.”

Of the five brands H&M Group and Nike responded to Just Style’s request for a comment. A H&M Group spokesperson was keen to point out that the data on which its ranking was based came from its 2022 Sustainability Disclosure, not the latest figures published for 2023 where it achieved a 22% reduction in scope 3 emissions from its 2019 baseline.

An Adidas spokesperson told Just Style exclusively that Adidas has set targets for 2025 and 2030 that will help the company limit emissions aligned with the 1.5°C benchmark and these targets have been approved by the ‘Science Based Targets initiative’ (‘SBTi’).

During a panel discussion titled “The role of retailers in building responsible supply chains” at the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the garment and footwear sector, third-party platforms were asked to take responsibility for their roles in creating textile waste as well as improving the supply chains of their brand partners.

The panel noted that retailers have a responsibility over their online algorithms that “push people towards overconsumption.”

The panellist continued: “We all know returns are a big driver of waste these days so there is also an environmental responsibility for retailers to not entice consumers to buy too much and then send half of it back.”

While brands tout their climate commitments and green initiatives, the absence of meaningful change and accountability in the fashion industry reveals a systemic reluctance to challenge the status quo.

The fashion industry’s addiction to fast fashion and overproduction continues, fuelling a cycle of waste and environmental degradation.

How to work towards a sustainable future

Remake World’s Fashion Accountability report revealed that the fashion industry giants have made little to no progress in addressing its negative social and environmental impacts over the past year, despite growing awareness and calls for change.

The report read: “This situation is not sustainable, not from an environmental perspective, and not from a business perspective. How long can an industry stagger along, haemorrhaging talent and abusing the communities and ecosystems it relies upon to function?”

The revelations of last week serve as a stark reminder that the pursuit of profit at the expense of people and the planet is no longer acceptable: business as usual is no longer an option.  It’s time for brands to walk the talk and for regulators to enact robust legislation.

Consumers, too, wield significant power in driving change. By voting with their wallets and demanding ethical practices from brands, they can hold the industry accountable and push for greater transparency.

By confronting the uncomfortable truths of fashion production and embracing a vision of sustainability, we can build a future where style coexists with conscience. The time for action is now.

Top news stories on Just Style last week…

Sae-A Trading acquires sportswear uniform maker Tegra

Korean garment manufacturer and supply chain solution provider, Sae-A Trading, has signed an agreement to acquire sportswear uniform manufacturer Tegra’s operations in Honduras, El Salvador and the US.

Inditex, H&M issue probe on ‘illegal deforestation’ linked to cotton claims

An investigation by non-profit organisation Earthsight finds cotton linked to illegal deforestation, land grabbing and violence against local communities is being sold by retailers including H&M and Inditex-owned Zara.

Uniqlo to open 11 new US stores as North American expansion continues

Fast Retailing-owned brand Uniqlo will open 11 new stores across Texas and California in 2024 as part of its wider store growth plans for North America.

Five fashion brands criticised for unreal eco targets, overproduction

A new report claims five leading fashion companies do not have “convincing emission reduction plans” and have not committed to reducing overproduction or moving away from the fast fashion business model.

US apparel, textile sectors urge united front on illicit trade crackdown

A coalition of US apparel and textile trade bodies is urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collaborate with all stakeholders to combat illicit textile trade practices.

eBay UK waives seller fees for preloved fashion in circular efforts

American e-commerce site eBay announced that starting 8 April it is free for individual sellers to sell preloved fashion items, a move aimed at supporting the circular fashion drive and diverting clothes from landfill.

Better Cotton unveils traceability solution for brands, retailers

Cotton sustainability initiative Better Cotton has introduced a “first-of-its-kind” traceability solution where fashion brands and retailers can track and document key stages of cotton production on the Better Cotton Platform, from cultivation to distribution.

Fashion retailers urged to take responsibility for overconsumption

Third party fashion platforms were asked to take responsibility for their role in creating textile waste as well as improving the supply chains of their brand partners at the OECD Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector.