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Not all fast-fashion labels are created equal, according to a new report by Ethical Consumer. The U.K. magazine tapped a variety of publicly available data, including company sustainability reports, to rate nearly 60 high-street and online brands on their social and environmental engagement in five primary categories: animals, environment, people, politics, and product sustainability. Leading the pack? British department store Marks & Spencer, which scored 10.5 out of a possible 20, followed by apparel juggernauts H&M and Zara with 9.5 each. George, the in-house clothing label by Walmart-owned Asda, ranked at the bottom with a piddly 0.5.
Most brands, the magazine found, are more successful in articulating their codes of conduct—i.e. their stated policies on working conditions—than implementing them. M&S, for instance, is one of only a “handful of companies” to take action on the issue of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, says Bryony Moore, the publication’s lead clothing researcher.
Most brands are more successful at articulating their codes of conduct than implementing them.
M&S is also working to eliminate hazardous substances from its clothing. In 2013,
Greenpeace hailed M&S a “Detox leader” not only for agreeing to integrate key precautionary and zero discharges principles, but also for boosting supply-chain transparency by publishing its chemical-discharge data on the credible Institute for Environmental Affairs platform.
“While other companies appear to make empty promises, M&S is genuinely ahead of its competitors by engaging with some of the biggest ethical and environmental issues facing the clothing industry today,” writes Moore in the Guardian.
Despite its top marks, M&S shouldn’t necessarily the conscious shopper’s go-to choice, Moore warns.
“Due to the number of clothing companies in Ethical Consumer’s product guide, it separated the specialist ethical clothing brands from the mainstream high street names,” she says. “The reality is that had they all been rated together, M&S would have emerged firmly in the middle of the table.”
With its customer base and purchasing power, M&S can help raise the ethical and environmental bar.
The company needs to go further, Moore adds. In Tailored Wages, a report by the Clean Clothes Campaign on efforts made by brands to pay their workers a living wage, M&S’s performance underwhelmed. It could also better its supply-chain management by improving audit transparency and increasing stakeholder engagement, Moore says.
“Ranked against other high-street brands, M&S tops the table, but pitted against companies on the ethical clothing table, it would be bottom of the league,” she adds.
Unlike smaller, “perfectly ethical” clothing firms, however, M&S has the customer base and purchasing power to influence the mainstream fashion industry. “Crucially, it can help raise the ethical and environmental bar,” Moore says.
And while most clothing crusaders have tarred all conventional clothing labels with the same brush, the intractability of that position can discourage companies from making further investments in their ethical profile.
“We believe there comes a time when you have to acknowledge that while there are still problems to be resolved, there’s now a real difference in performance between the best and worst clothing companies,” Moore says. “And by shopping with the best you are rewarding a company that is moving in the right direction towards a more sustainable clothing industry.”