Fast fashion is fossil fashion. - Urska Trunk, Changing Markets Foundation

In Part 2 of our Company Spotlight Series on the fast fashion heavy hitters Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo (you can read about Part 1, The People here), we take a look at the sustainability initiatives of these colossal companies and what kind of impact is actually being made by their claims for a greener fashion future. 

What is fast fashion anyways? To put it bluntly, fast fashion is cheaply made clothing produced in large volumes at the expense of the people and the planet. Its designs are typically easily digestible trends taken from smaller designers and the catwalk. On average, 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year and most garments are worn just 7 times and 60% of these new items produced every year are made with fabrics derived from fossil fuels. 

Looks pretty, but these colours are dyes from chemicals discharged from textile factories on January 07, 2012 in Rajasthan, India. (Photo by Xavier Zimbardo/Getty Images)

As a data-focused sustainability company, these numbers matter big time and we use them, and others to tally up the sustainability scores of the brands that drive our purchasing decisions. 

Here are examples of two important scores that we look at: 

The Emissions score is the extent to which the business emits greenhouse gases and other VOC’s (Volatile organic compounds). Initiatives in order to reduce emissions, objectives, and policies and monitoring all affect this score.

The Environmental Innovation score is awarded based on the contribution towards sustainable consumerism from the company’s products. Inputs such as providing clean energy products, the creation of hybrid or electric vehicles, or solutions for water or building materials all affect this score.

Whether it is Zara’s Join Life line or H&M’s Conscious Collection, fast fashion brands are known for implementing seemingly ethical products into their lines but do little to spread the green initiatives across all their full production.

According to a 2021 “Synthetics Anonymous” Report by Changing Markets, that looked at 12 online shops of major fast fashion brands including H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo, and analyzed over 4,000 garments, found an average of 91% of green claims made by the top brands were misleading or unsubstantiated and “were found to hide the fact that their so-called ‘eco-conscious’ collections often contain as much synthetic fiber as their main lines, with H&M’s conscious collection containing an even higher share of synthetics than the main one.”

On that note, let’s get into it. 

From the Synthetics Anonymous Report

H&M

Emissions 2/5
Environmental Care 3/5 
Environmental Innovations 2/5 
Materials 2/5 

H&M’s more recent climate goals are outlined in their 2020 Sustainability & Performance Report. They have a few ambitious goals with targeted dates that are creeping up– 2030 to be exact. But with a 2/5 emissions score and an Environmental Innovations score to match, are they doing enough? Let’s break down each of their goals and see. 

  • “Climate positive by 2040 throughout H&M Group’s entire value chain.” 

Climate positive aims to not only neutralize the total amount of carbon released but to take it further by implementing stages to remove further CO2 from the atmosphere. And to get to climate positive, H&M plans to cut their emissions in half every decade. 

“To become climate positive, we need to change how our products are made and enjoyed. About 70% of a garment’s climate impact happens in manufacturing. Making fibres, processing materials, dyeing and fabricating requires a lot of energy. We make tough demands on our suppliers to save energy, and we help them to switch to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.” - From their Sustainability & Performance report. 

  • “Climate neutral supply chain for our manufacturing and processing factories owned or subcontracted by our suppliers as well as our suppliers’ own suppliers (i.e. fabric mills, fibre processors, spinners or tanneries) by 2030.” 

Before H&M can get to climate positive, they need to reduce their emissions overall and take steps to bring their emissions to ‘zero.’ Since a big chunk of emissions released take place within the supply chain, it’ll require a radical amount of change within the industry if they want to get to this lofty goal. They plan to reduce supplier emissions by 20-25% by 2030. 

  • “Reduce scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 40% before 2030 (baseline 2017).”

Here is a quickie on the difference between the Scopes outlined in the GHG protocol: Scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions, which means everything that is under H&M’s control such as heating, cooling, gas use, etc. Scope 2 emissions are the indirect emissions produced by electricity purchased by H&M from the power grid. But according to their data –including energy from renewable resources– their 2020 total scope 1 and 2 emissions are at 60,607 tonnes. Which is up from 51,206 tonnes in 2017. Uh oh. This goal is also based on data from Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) that to keep global warming below 2 degrees, which as we know from the recent IPCC report is the most the earth can warm before effects are irreversible, we need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. Stay tuned to their 2021 report to see if this goal is appropriately adjusted. 

  • “Reduce scope 3 GHG emissions from purchased raw materials, fabric production and garments by 59% per product before 2030 (baseline 2017). 

Scope 3 emissions are typically the trickiest to reduce. The remaining indirect emissions, and the source of most of the carbon released, take place all throughout the supply chain including the manufacturers, global transportation and distribution, and waste. Since scope 3 stats come from external sources, nothing for 2020 has been released. 

  • Increase annual sourcing of renewable electricity from 95% in 2017 to 100% by 2030.”

According to H&M’s sustainability report, their renewable energy use went down to 90% in 2020. 

The data never lies, and H&M’s data shows that their total emissions from their direct operations (scope 1 & 2) are up 18%. This is why the Your Arbor score is so important, folks. We can see past flashy posts, labels, and campaigns from brands like H&M boasting about green initiatives, and seemingly progressive eco-labels.

Under the Paris Agreement, the EU is set to be climate neutral by 2050. So the Swedish-based H&M isn’t exactly doing this on their own as their hand is being forced by the governing regulatory body. 

In an attempt to up their status as a “green” brand in 2012 H&M launched their Conscious Collection. 

This line is outside of their general and vast collection and is focused on the implementation of renewable and more eco-conscious fabrics. Not only do customers get to feel like they are contributing to change by purchasing garments made with organic cotton or recycled polyester, they can also earn “Conscious Points,” a loyalty program with “conscious reward points” for making more sustainable choices while they shop with H&M such as bringing their own bag, purchasing more items with their “Green” tag, or recycling unwanted clothes at select stores. If there's one thing we know about fast fashion, buying more of it is never the solution. At the end of the day, this is a pretty gimmicky way to just get customers to fill their reusable bags with more new things. 

Arket, Nordic Outdoors campaign

ARKET, which means ‘sheet of paper’ in Swedish and “symbolizes creativity and innovation, openness and open-mindedness, and connects to the aesthetics of simplicity that influence our designs,” is the H&M Group’s most forward initiative. This line is branded as being a modern and timeless lifestyle destination –it even has a Nordic vegetarian cafe under it’s brand– geared towards making sustainable fashion more accessible through a circular approach to design and radical transparency. Ironic, as a look through Arket’s sleek and minimal website isn't very transparent about the fact that it's owned and operated by the world’s biggest fast fashion brand. The fact H&M is the brand’s parent company is only mentioned very briefly on their ‘About’ page and in font a full size smaller than the rest of the content on the page.

ARKET and H&M’s conscious line within their stores is important to draw focus to because it showcases the tactic fast fashion brands use of funnelling sustainable initiatives to bolster and pad their reporting, while being able to continue as “business as usual” in the rest of their production. By adding lines and labels that appear more green, it’s the fashion industry's version of the emperor’s new clothes where brands can escape criticism by hiding behind bogus climate initiatives. 

Zara

Emissions 2/5 
Environmental Care 4/5 
Environmental innovations 2/5 
Materials 3/5 

“We regard sustainability as a means to achieving a fairer society and in balance with the limits of the planet."

Zara makes up 70% of the revenue and sales of its parent company Inditex, so it is safe to say that most of Inditex's available sustainability data is based on the Zara brand. For four consecutive years, the CDP, a non-profit that measures corporate environmental impact, has awarded Inditex with an ‘A- rating’ for its climate change program. But according to our data, Zara has a 2/5 rating for both Emissions and Environmental Care. We went through their (photo heavy) 602 page 2020 Annual Report and here are the brass tracks:

100% of the Zara stores are currently eco-efficient (ie. light dimmers and thermostats calibrated to save roughly 40% of energy use in stores). Inditex also boasts that 81% of electricity consumption at their facilities (headquarters, logistics centres, and stores) comes from renewable energy, putting them on the path to reach their energy targets for 2025. Having eco-efficient stores is an impactful step in the right direction as there are over 2000 Zara stores worldwide (Scope 1 emissions), but how much of this is actually making a difference when most of the emissions released by fast fashion brands takes place in the supply chain –well before the clothes make it to the climate controlled stores. For 2020, Inditex planned to reduce their Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 90% but their scope 3 emissions by a mere 20% compared to 2018. 

In 2021, Inditex surpassed their target of having 25% of their garments put on the market bear the Join Life label by more than 10% (this includes smaller brands under the Inditex umbrella such as Massimo Dutti, Bershka, and Pull & Bear who also use the label). This is actually a huge improvement as in 2016 Join Life added up to only 3% of their global products. While the increase to 35% feels significant, according to Remakeourworld: Zara’s Join Life collection has about 280 items in total, while conventional categories like “dresses and jumpsuits'' have over 1500 items. In the words of Shania: That don't impress me much. 

Zara's Join Life campaign is always about heavily branding the "natural aspect"

Under Join Life, Inditex has increased their use of sustainable cotton by 90%. But not so fast Zara, as of 2020, this consciously branded collection only makes up 38% of their total goods produced –which totals 450,146 tonnes in one year to be exact. That’s a lot of unsustainable cotton still being used. This matters: the conventional cotton used by H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo has a major environmental and socio-economic impact that negatively affects the planet and the people involved. 

“Xinjiang is one of the world’s leading cotton producing regions and grows more than 80% of China's cotton. About one in five pieces of clothing, from high street to luxury goods, contains cotton from Xinjiang where multiple well-documented cases of forced labour of minority groups, especially the minority Ugyhur muslim population, are working in detention camps. The Chinese government has defended these camps and called them “job training centres” that are in place to help Uighur people; however, more recently it has been shown that these camps are locations that perpetuate poor labour conditions, physical and mental abuse and forced sterilisation for Uighur women.” -From our post on the People impacted by H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo. 

TURPAN, XINJIANG, CHINA - OCTOBER 26: (Photo by Chien-min Chung/Getty Images)

Throughout their 2020 Sustainability Report, Inditex really pushes the headway made by the Join Life Collections instead of the broader impact on the environment by their company as a whole. That isn’t surprising based on what we know about corporate greenwashing –read more about that in our post here–as it makes the consumer feel better about the purchases that they make. Also important to note: 15% of the salaries of both the executive chairman and the CEO of Inditex are linked to “compliance with sustainability policies,” and the employees are accountable too. Taken from the Sustainability Report: “the variable remuneration of all office employees is linked to performance in this area. Likewise, the variable remuneration of sales departments is linked to the use of more sustainable raw materials.”  Since the former CEO and founder of Inditex is the 11th wealthiest person in the world weighing in at a cool $78.9 billion, it’s not hard to imagine that pushing the green agenda isn’t just for the environment. 

“The Inditex business model, characterized by integration, sustainability and innovation in all phases of the value chain aims to meet our customers' expectations and offer them quality fashion with the highest standards of sustainability and product health and safety.”

In the capitalist and customer-driven world of fast fashion, maintaining their bottom line is at the core of Zara’s corporate values. The drive for decarbonization shouldn’t be based on 15% of a CEO’s inflated salary while the planet burns and garment workers are notoriously underpaid and overworked.  A radical shift needs to happen and it needs to come from the top. As a New York Times profile on Gen-Z and their relationship to fashion fast said, “for every Greta Thunberg and school-skipping climate change protester, there is another member of Generation Z buying inexpensive clothes on a smartphone.” 

Uniqlo

Emissions 3/5
Environmental Care 3/5 
Environmental innovations 4/5 
Materials 4/5 

“We believe we can turn the power of clothing into a force for good. By designing, making and selling good clothing, we can make the world a better place. It is produced in a way that is harmonious with nature, without excessive burden on the environment.” -From Fast Retailing’s Sustainability Statement

Uniqlo sustainability campaign

Tailing closely behind the fast fashion frontrunners Zara and H&M when it comes to revenue and global production, is Fast Retailing, the home of Uniqlo. According to their sustainability statement, they “strive to realize a sustainable society by reducing the environmental impact through our business activities. Through technology and innovation, we create products that deliver new value. This is our promise: to always work toward a better, more sustainable society.”

The Japanese-based Uniqlo’s impact scores are higher across the board than Zara and H&M, but does the data measure up to their promise to always strive for a more sustainable world?

In 2020, Uniqlo ​​also signed the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (UNFICC). But just like H&M and many other multinationals, this isn’t a particularly groundbreaking move as it is more of an industry standard.

In an effort to reduce and reuse, Uniqlo launched their RE.UNIQLO recycling program. The goal of this initiative is  to collect unwanted Uniqlo clothing from their customers and use these discarded items as insulated filling for a new line of their recycled down jackets. The line of jackets is entirely made from down and feathers that were extracted from the items collected from their customers. Since its inception in 2019, 620,000 pieces of down products were collected in Japan, and since 2020 the program has expanded to 23 countries. Recycling down is a beneficial move towards a more circular and sustainable model of the fashion industry, but until the initiative is implemented in a large capacity, its benefits are just a drop in the pan. Most of Uniqlo’s insulated jackets are primarily made of nylon, a petroleum based product. According to the Synthetic Anonymous Report, the production of synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester for the textile industry adds up to 1.35% of global oil consumption. This is more than the annual oil consumption of Spain.

Uniqlo does not have a dedicated sustainability line like H&M or Zara, nor does the brand use any recycled synthetics. That same report found that 79% of all products they analyzed contained synthetics.  

From their sustainability report:

“We aim to contribute to the establishment of a circular economy and maximize resource efficiency by eliminating waste.

By collaborating with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNIQLO has donated 41.11 million items of clothing to refugees and displaced persons in 75 countries and regions around the world. Through our global partnership with UNHCR, we aim to donate approximately 7 million pieces of clothing per year. UNIQLO Japan recycles clothes that are unwearable into solid fuel and automobile soundproofing materials to ensure that nothing goes to waste.”

Donated unwanted and unworn clothing is great, but that doesn’t reduce the emissions released, or the water and other resources sucked up, or the fossil fuels used to produce all the new clothing in the first place. 

Fast Retailing's 2021 Sustainability report leaves much to the imagination. Uniqlo, like Zara and H&M, say that they intend to honour the goals set out by the Paris Agreement to reduce emission by 2050, and are committed to setting Science-based targets. But instead of divulging the data on where the company currently stands, their report is primarily a reiteration of what the Paris Agreement stands for such as reducing overall GHG emissions of the fashion industry by 30% by 2030 and keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees. 

What they plan to do: Reduce GHG emissions in their stores by 10% in 2020 (based on their emissions from 2013). Good news is that they have achieved a 38.7% reduction., but what about the supply chain where the majority of emissions are released in the first place?

Accountability to climate goals requires a bit of transparency. “assessing emissions” and setting unknown targets in the pursuit of vague programs is a prime example of corporate greenwashing where the assumption that a commitment to the targets is enough without any concrete steps being taken. 

In what might win this years award for the greatest example of greenwashing and the boldest claim ever made about a t-shirt is Uniqlo’s declaration that their HEATTECH line of apparel is going to save the planet:

“Fast Retailing considers the possibilities of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through apparel with functional characteristics. For example, HEATTECH functional innerwear is a high selling item by UNIQLO. We count on HEATTECH technology to provide greater warmth, thus potentially reducing the amount of energy needed for heating.”

It doesn’t take being a climate scientist to be able to say with assurance that the solution to fighting global warming is probably not by manufacturing a bunch of polyester shirts. It’s going to come from taking a good hard look at how we consume and the corporate drive that pushes us to buy more through falsified claims of sustainability and innovation.