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Green Is The New Black

H&M X PETA: Are they pulling the (vegan) wool over our eyes?

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H&M has collaborated with animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to create a vegan collection. The ‘Co-exist Story’ range by H&M is “vegan” and “PETA-approved”. The partners say they are exploring innovative alternatives to animal-derived fabrics. So far, so good. But, what does that actually mean? Is this finally a step in the right direction by fast fashion, or just a new spin on greenwashing?

This new collaboration has certainly sparked some interesting conversations. Many are asking questions like: does making something vegan inherently make it ethical? Is vegan better for the environment? The H&M X PETA marketing campaign hinges on the use of natural, plant-derived materials, in place of natural, animal-derived materials (like leather, down, wool or silk). In theory, this sounds great. Natural materials have many benefits. One of the main positives is that they are biodegradable. If we can have natural fabrics, without harming or exploiting animals it’s a win-win situation. Happy animals, happy planet, right?

A closer look

Firstly, critics quickly pointed out that H&M exploits garment workers in its supply chain. As one commenter tweeted sarcastically, “we can excuse the exploitation of countless poor people who work in inhumane conditions with minimum payment but we draw the line when it involves animals.” Releasing a range that doesn’t exploit animals, shouldn’t mean they are off the hook for their exploitation of people. Usually women. And mostly women of colour. The range has been given the PETA ‘vegan’ stamp of approval. Nevertheless, among the many voices denouncing PETA’s decision to partner with H&M were prominent vegan influencers. Demi Colleen and Isaias Hernandez (@queerbrownvegan) joined the commenters highlighting the hypocrisy. 

The party line from PETA on social media is “The H&M line is made with groundbreaking vegan materials like FLWRDWN, a material created with natural wildflowers, VEGEA, which is made from grape skins, and ECONYL, a regenerated nylon created from salvaged trash, like discarded fishing nets. We urge all companies to be inclusive and switch from animal-derived materials to innovative vegan ones, that will appeal to the rapidly growing socially conscious consumers as well as the younger generation that’s demanding products that don’t harm animals, the Earth, or us.” So, does this hold up under the microscope?

Unfortunately, no. It takes all of 30 seconds to click on an item from the collection, and see that in reality, the majority of them contain synthetic materials. As in plastic. That plant-based vegan leather? Coated in 100% Polyurethane (plastic) and lined with 100% Polyester (also plastic).

The problem with polyester

According to the report ‘Fossil Fashion‘, around 69% of clothes are now made up of synthetic textiles. Polyester is the most common, accounting for about 52%. Other commonly used materials are elastane, nylon and acrylic. Nylon and polyester feature heavily in the H&M X PETA line.

If you didn’t know, synthetic fabrics used by the fashion industry are plastic-based. And plastic comes from fossil fuels. In fact, plastics is a key growth area for the fossil fuel industry as the push intensifies to replace dirty fuels like coal and oil, and replace them with clean renewable energy. (In other words, Big Oil have been moving towards plastics to ensure their relevance in a fossil-free world.) The impact of these fabrics is a disaster for the planet. And by extension, the very animals that PETA strives to protect.

Firstly, the manufacture and production of synthetic fabrics from fossil fuels come at a cost to the climate. The production of these synthetic materials makes up for 1.35% of global oil usage, surpassing the annual consumption of Spain! In 2015, polyester production was responsible for emissions equivalent to 180 coal-fired power plants. On top of the carbon emissions, the industry causes a myriad of environmental inflictions like oil spills, water and air pollution, impacts on human health, wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss.

Moreover, in addition to the calamitous impact of production, synthetic fabrics are also responsible for another disastrous environmental concern. When we wash or wear these fabrics, they release tiny plastic particles known as microplastics. These fragments of plastic are everywhere. Because they are so small, they’re virtually impossible to detect and catch. So they make their way into our waterways. Which, of course, has a negative impact on marine life which ingest them. Doesn’t sound very vegan-friendly, does it?

What if it’s recycled?

The word ‘recycled’ invokes an image of something eco-conscious and sustainable. Many fast fashion brands base their ‘green’ credentials on the use of recycled synthetic fabrics. Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute says: “We’ve been led to believe that recycled and sustainable are synonymous when they are anything but.”

So, what’s wrong with recycled synthetic fabrics? When we see a fabric labelled as recycled polyester, we might assume that old fabric from clothing has been recycled. In truth, recycled polyester in fashion actually comes from plastic bottles. PET bottles can be recycled at least 10 times so are in fact one of the better plastics for single-use items like soda bottles. The fashion industry is taking the bottles out of that system, where they could be recycled many times. By diverting them to apparel production, fashion is effectively “taking from this closed-loop and moving it into this linear system” says Bédat. Used for garments, they are much less likely to be recycled. In fact, less than 1% of clothing gets recycled. The fashion industry has created a shameful waste crisis. 

The H&M X PETA range is no different. Most, if not all of the collection, contains recycled synthetic material. Despite this, the ad campaign highlights only the plant-based fabrics. H&M is deliberately misleading customers by zooming in on the plant materials and omitting the fact that most of the fabric is, in fact, polyester. This suggests that they have cottoned on to public awareness and the desire to avoid plastic. But don’t be fooled, because they’re still greenwashing. By adding the vegan label, and getting a charity on board, they position themselves as a business that ‘cares’ about animals and the environment.

A look at the bigger picture

H&M X PETA uses phrases like ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’, as synonyms for environmentally friendly and ethical. For fashion to be sustainable, it will take much more than recycled polyester. And for the industry to be truly ethical, there are so many more problems to consider.

Fast fashion is notorious for its exploitation of garments workers. From unsafe working conditions to paltry pay, there is nothing ethical about the way the industry treats its workforce. When you consider H&M Chairman Stefan Persson is worth an estimated $17.7 billion, against the fact that the average garment worker in Bangladesh (H&M’s top production country) earns around $18 per month? You start to get a sense of just how exploitative fast fashion really is. According to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn a garment workers lifetime pay in just four days. And if that wasn’t bad enough, H&M specifically has been repeatedly called out for not paying garment workers a living wage, and for being complicit in the sexual harassment, assault and even murder of women working in their supply chain.

H&M X PETA, like their previous ‘sustainable’ ranges, will make up a relatively small percentage of all garments H&M produce. Their game plan is to focus all their marketing and branding on ‘sustainability’ efforts, while their bread and butter remain the same. That is, producing millions of items every week, and encouraging customers to constantly consume more and more fast fashion.

Planned obsolescence

Sustainable fashion expert Aja Barber started an interesting discussion when she posted on Instagram about ‘planned obsolescence’ in fast fashion. Planned obsolescence is typically something we observe in the tech industry, so it was fascinating to learn how it shows up fashion. Also known as ‘built-in obsolescence’, this is the practice of companies manufacturing items that could be built to last a long time, but intentionally designing them in a way that means they will need to be replaced or upgraded within a short period.

This is fundamental to the fast fashion business model. They integrate planned obsolescence into the design process. H&M churn out 3 billion garments a year. They opt for cheap synthetic fabrics to keep their production costs down. They also use these fabrics to keep quality low. Why? Because if your clothing looks dull and tired, you will keep going back for more.

According to Barber, the most obvious way this shows up in fashion is in seasonal knitwear. As we approach the holidays, fashion retailers are trotting out their typical fayre. Sequined party wear and cosy knitwear are everywhere. We often talk about avoiding those sparkly dresses (sequins are a micro-plastic nightmare) but less so do about knitwear. Barber shared that knitwear was the first fashion item she quit on her journey towards a sustainable wardrobe. Why? Because while fast fashion knitwear might contain some wool, it is mostly made from synthetics.

Aja says: “I began to notice that it never lasted, never looked as good as it had the previous year and that much of it was becoming made from … plastic. The following year too many of my sweaters looked bobbled and sad and I viewed it as a supreme waste of money because I was buying over and over again.”

This brings us back to the natural vs synthetic dilemma

Now, Barber is slowly curating a collection of knitwear made from high-quality, natural materials, like cashmere and wool. Her approach is to source secondhand luxury knitwear, designed to last a long time.

The primary selling point of H&M X PETA is that it is vegan. They are not necessarily aiming this particular range at the eco-conscious consumer but at the growing vegan market. The environmentalists among us can easily spot the greenwashing, and critique the use of plastics. The vegan market, on the other hand, is looking for alternatives to animal-based fabrics.

And when it comes to those animal-based fabrics, there is a dire need to find ethical and cruelty-free options. The fur and exotic skin industry have a bad reputation, for good reason. Animals are kept in horrific conditions and killed in cruel and inhumane ways to make luxury products. Over the past couple of decades, with demand for these steadily declining, fewer fashion designers are using them, and they are becoming less prevalent. However, more commonly used materials like wool, leather and silk can unfortunately also involve animal cruelty. This has not always been the case, but the demand for new clothing has exploded. And in a capitalist society, exploitation abounds as businesses cut corners to maximise profit.

Natural done sustainably

Notably, Indigenous people have always and continue to use animal-based fabrics. In Canada, the Inuit people have traditionally used seal skin for warm winter clothing. Today, designers and crafters continue this tradition. Indigenous influencer and actress, Marika Sila, explains that the use of sealskin by Inuit designers is sustainable. Canada’s seal populations are healthy and increasing. Because large seal populations can have negative effects on fish stocks, a well-managed seal harvest is key. It helps maintain seal populations that allow fish populations to thrive. Supporting Indigenous designers that make garments in a responsible way is good for the environment and it also helps to keep time-honoured traditions alive for the next generation.

What’s an ethical fashionista to do?

There is no simple answer, and ultimately it comes down to the individual. Some vegans who are looking for environmentally friendly garments opt for secondhand leather, wool or silk. Buying preloved is not fuelling the demand for new animal-derived materials and therefore, no more animals are being exploited.

When it comes to buying new, research independent brands that are transparent about where they source their fabrics. While leather might be a no-go for some vegans, wool, cashmere and mohair can be sourced from cruelty-free farmers with sustainable and ethical practices. They are generally more expensive, but are of high quality and made to last. Remember, ethical fashion is about slowing down consumption as much as it is about sustainable fabrics.

Alternatively, if animal fibres are off the cards, search for plant-based options. While H&M X PETA appears to use only a tiny percentage of plant-based materials in their range, there are brands out there doing it right. From cactus leather to bamboo and linen, there are natural substitutes.

To help your research efforts, check out Fashion Revolution. And, on social media, accounts like Ethical Made Easy, Good On You share great insights into that brands are doing well.

I’ll leave you with a final thought from Aja Barber’s excellent book, Consumed: “The shift away from treasuring and valuing clothing is harming us all. Our culture, our ethos, our way of life.”

IMAGE: via H&M | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A model with long brown hair, wears an oversized black sweater. She is also wearing black sunglasses. She has her hair down. The sweater has white text on it. Although not fully visible, the words ‘For Animal..’ can be seen. Beside her, we can see the profile of a horse’s face. Behind her, is another horse. 

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Leanne has worked and volunteered in the NGO sector in Asia and the UK for almost a decade. She is a proud and passionate fundraiser who is motivated by connecting people to causes that they care about and giving them the opportunity to make a real difference. Since growing up on the West Coast of Ireland, she has always been a lover of nature, especially the ocean. Her journey towards living more sustainably and consciously started slowly through an interest in minimalism, plant-based diet, yoga and the zero-waste movement. She has attempted all of them with varying degrees of success! Seeing the Extinction Rebellion April actions in London this year was the biggest wake-up call to learn the truth about the scale of the climate crisis and Leanne now considers herself a bone fide, but imperfect, environmentalist keen to share the infinite benefits of slowing down and living more mindfully with anyone who will listen!