Shame On You!

NATALIE CHUI goes to American Apparel and H&M to examine their sustainability schemes.

Images by Natalie Chui and Collage by Kathryn Rust

“Fast fashion” is dubbed fast fashion for a reason, its production, packaging, selling, disposal is all a cycle of repetition and efficiency is the main target. The goal of this cycle is to be the first, the cheapest, the fastest and the trendiest. Once a new trend is announced, high street stores will have it in stock by the morning. Thus, slowing down is not a term in the high street’s vocabulary. As a result, this cycle of fast fashion has increasingly deepened the systems fatal flaw of unsustainability. The increasingly high rates of production has resulted in many unethical practices happening within the industry, often going unnoticed, especially in the use of poor materials and the employment of cheap labor. Thus, in an attempt to shed its unsustainable image, two high street retailers, American apparel and H&M have all implemented sustainability schemes to help give their brand a green edge to its production and consumers. But is this really an attempt to enforce green living or just plain old green washing in order to inject higher profits?

American Apparel, the American high street clothing store, with several UKL and international branches, dutifully noted by the countries plastered on its shopping bags, has always prided themselves as a ‘sustainable’ retailer. Despite its recent announcement of going bankrupt, American Apparel is alarmingly popular amongst today’s 15-25 year old girls, especially due to its aggressive social media. Since 2002, American Apparel has advertised their sustainability, saying they are ‘made in America’ and in ‘sweatshop free’ environments. These slogans can be found on their storefronts and advertising campaigns, which are often spread over their facebook and instagram page. American Apparel’s factory is based in Los Angeles, which is a stark difference to other high street retailers whose factories are based in south east Asia or China due to lower costs. American Apparel’s clothing is priced slightly higher than other high street stores like Monki or H&M due to the ‘sustainability’ of their clothes. Zoe Suen, a 19-year old fashion blogger, worked as the media consultant for American Apparel, where at the age of 16, she was paid £1,160 a month to run their instagram account. “American Apparel’s clothes are more expensive than other retailers like Monki and h&m, but that’s because their clothes are made of good quality, so that justifies the price.” Suen says. “I have to admit it does make me, as a shopper, feel better when I see that its ‘made in America’ and ‘sweatshop free’ because it makes me feel like I’m wearing something that’s been cared for. I think sustainability makes up for a big part of the brand, its always been on their posters, and they sell simple basics, encouraging you to buy good quality clothes you can keep for a long time.”

Due to the fact that their factory is based in one place, it’s easier to trace back the clothing to the source; however, there are many gaps in its system. They aim to create organic products with the ‘organic collection’, a line of t-shirts and underwear produced from 100% USDA Certified Organic and pesticide-free cotton. Yet the organic range only holds 16 products, including men’s, women’s and children’s, c actually only making a small portion of the entirety of what’s in store. American Apparel’s factory workers earn USD$18.50 an hour and supposed health benefits, a significantly higher fee than what most retailers pay their workers. Yet this masked a bigger problem in its unethical and highly sexualized advertising often featuring teenage girls in a Lolita style fashion, as created by former CEO Dov Charney. Ultimately resulting in the downfall of American Apparel, with sales declining 19% in the last quarter. Paula Schneider, the new CEO of American Apparel was hit with controversy after garment workers were seen hitting a piñata filled with candy, made in her likeness. Those involved called it a ‘protest’ against the unfair firing of three workers, including one that was the leader of a union that fights against worker injustice within American Apparel.

Despite that its made by well paid workers, American Apparel’s fame is due to their provocative advertising of their clothing, especially to its target of teenage girls. And unfortunately, its sustainable factor only plays a secondary act to the general consumer. American Apparel may brand ‘made in America’ and ‘sweatshop free’ all over their stores, but like its small print on the upper left-hand corner of their infamous store banner, sustainability makes up for only a small part of American Apparel.

H&M is arguably one of the biggest high street retailers with international stores world-wide and branches into fragrance, furniture, make-up and many more. Though H&M prides itself on ‘fashion and quality at the best price’, price is more of an area they focus on as H&M is infamous for selling cheap, trendy clothing. In the past years however, they’ve begun to introduce more ethical initiative into their production and their advertisement. In 2014, H&M introduced the fair wage method, developed by the fair wage network in three factories (Bangladesh and Cambodia, as seen on most H&M labels), to help pay sweatshop workers fairer payment. H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson reported that through this ‘Overtime has been reduced by 40%’ and that ‘wages have increased’. H&M also have another green initiative called ‘H&M conscious’, a line of clothing that has all been made sustainably, especially focusing on using organic cotton and recycled polyester and retaining the original pricing structure of H&M’s own clothes. Although H&M conscious is only a small amount of clothing produced by H&M, its growth has risen from its start in 2012 when 9% of all materials used were sustainable. In 2014 the number rose to 14%. However, H&M’s most recognized scheme is its garment collection. “I know that H&M’s got this recycling scheme, where you can give them clothes so they use the fabric in their own designs” says Amber, a 20 year old Australian living in London responded as she exited H&M with plastic shopping bags. “ I feel better about giving it to them because it’s easier than throwing it all away and it seems like such a waste to do so.” The garment collection scheme has been implemented into all h&m shops, yet it almost seems as if it were part of the Christmas decoration, stored away in tight corners next to clothes with the same #hmconscious signs displayed over them.

Ultimately these high street stores are big corporations and although these initiatives have been enforced, high street stores will continue to produce high volumes of clothing at a fast pace so they can make the most profit out of what they’re doing. The more clothing being produced, the more difficult the traceability behind the garment becomes and these stores are unlikely to go completely eco-friendly overnight. However, if the initiatives are any indication, it’s that sustainability in fashion is starting to become a more recognized issue in fashion. But until then, consumers need to be made aware of the green washing happening and its hidden nature reveals the shame in the “sustainable” shopping of high street stores.