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The global fashion retailers are coming – what’s their record like?

Folded jeans (Flickr/Maegan Tintari)

Folded jeans (Flickr/Maegan Tintari)

Some of the world’s largest “affordable” clothing brands have opened stores in Australia or are headed our way. What’s their record like on sustainable and ethical production?

Zara and Top Shop have opened stores in Sydney and Melbourne. But this is just the beginning of a deluge, with reports of 15-20 new stores to be opened by both brands, and 25 stores on the way from Japanese mega retailer Uniqlo. Swedish giant H&M also has plans for Sydney and Melbourne for 2014.

How do these mega brands stack up when it comes to fair working conditions and sustainable practices?

Ethical trading – rights and safety for factory workers

Fires and factory collapses in Bangladesh and Cambodia have once more focussed attention on the cost of the world’s addiction to ‘fast fashion’ on workers. There has even been some action in response, with 60 global brands- including Australia’s Target and Kmart- having signed up to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. This Accord is said to be legally binding for five years. It requires brands to underwrite the cost of safety upgrades at their suppliers’ factories, permits workers to refuse to work in substandard conditions and requires independent safety inspections.

The Ethical Trading Initiative, a UK alliance of non-government organisations, labour unions and business, recommends its members sign the accord.

What about the mega brands who are on their way to Australia? H&M and Zara signed early, Top Shop’s owner Arcadia signed up after some criticism for not doing so.  However Japan based Uniqlo, along with Walmart, Gap and a number of other global brands, has so far refused to sign. Uniqlo says it will put in place its own systems for checking on safety and notes that it currently works with Bangladeshi micro finance leader, the Grameen bank, to create jobs and work on poverty, sanitation and education.


Toxic chemical pollution

H&M, Zara and Uniqlo are among 15 fashion brands that have committed to “Detox” their production processes as part of the Greenpeace campaign which calls on fashion labels to reduce industrial pollution that harms water resources around the world. At the time of writing, Top Shop has not yet joined the list of labels who have made a commitment to this campaign.

Reducing the impact of cotton production

Cotton is popular because it’s a cool, natural fibre, but conventional cotton production uses large amounts of water and pesticides. Organic production and recycled cotton are two ways to reduce the environmental, and often the social, impact of cotton production. The Better Cotton Initiative is supported by WWF and some other social and environmental campaigners. It promotes good farming practices, reduces water and chemical use and protects workers and biodiversity. H&M was a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative.


We’re not in a position to give a definite view on which retailer is best (or least bad). Fashion blog Refinery 29 had a go at ranking nine leading brands in April this year. It’s worth a read, but they were criticised for relying too much on the brands’ own information.

If we focus on the Bangladesh Accord, Detox campaign and the Better Cotton initiative H&M is the best of the four. It has also been rated as more transparent than most fashion retailers – it publishes a list of all suppliers and their addresses and works with WWF on the Better Cotton initiative. H&M als0 encourages consumers to bring in used clothes which it recycles to charities – 3.2 million in 2012. Refinery 29 ranked H&M as second of the nine brands reviewed (behind Forever 21).

Top Shop looks the worst. It signed the Bangladesh Accord only after most other European labels were on board. It has not joined the Greenpeace Detox campaign and, like Zara and Uniqlo is not a member of the Better Cotton initiative.

All of these companies are part of the trend to more disposable fashion. Zara in particular has made its name through its ability to bring a new piece from design to the shop in a matter of weeks, and others have followed.

What consumers can do

Choose brands that you are sure respect workers’ rights. The Ethical Clothing Initiative lists Australian accredited clothing brands. Alana Smith’s post Mainstreaming Ethical Fashion is an enjoyable summary of how she shops for fashionable work clothes with ethical concerns in mind. She invites you to join her in writing to the brands she would like to use asking them for transparency about their supply chains. If you are interested in taking more action, you could support Oxfam’s campaign for more Australian retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord.

Reduce the ‘in use’ environmental impact of clothes One of the biggest environmental impacts of clothing use is the energy and water used in washing them. One of the key things we can all do to help is to wash our clothes less often. United Nation’s Environment Program eco tips for jeans video recommends wearing jeans three times, washing them in cold water and using the clothes line not the dryer.

Avoid brands that haven’t acted to reduce toxic pollution in their production processes Read Greenpeace’s advice on how to detox your wardrobe.

Tips for Eco Conscious Fashion

  • Buy Second Hand
  • Buy classics you can wear again and again
  • Buy specialist eco brands
  • Focus on quality
  • Fix things – repair a zipper or a seam yourself, or find a local tailor
  • Choose organic (or recycled) cotton, especially for basics. It can still use a lot of water but cuts out the pesticides that pollute even more water.
  • Try and use an eco label – offers guidance in a confusing area …
  • Look for fair trade clothes
  • Avoid distressed denim that relies on chemicals or sandblasting that can cause lung disease in workers
  • Wash less often, wash a full load and keep the temperature down. 30 degrees will wash all but heavily soiled garments
  • Take you clothes back: Patagonia and H&M will take back clothes – and sometimes give you credit. Ask other labels to do the same.
  • Check out the policies on your favourite brand’s websites – and contact them to tell them you are looking.

Adapted from Greenpeace


In this post we’ve touched on workers rights, chemicals and pesticides and the impact of clothes washing. For a list of what they see as the nine key sustainability issues for clothing, see this summary of the Forum for the Future’s detailed report.


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