Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Sustainable Clothing - Progress by the UK High Street and Online Retailers

At last LFW in February, I attended the fourth update for a Sustainable Action Plan for clothing launched by UK retailers and supported by the government. The Sustainable clothing Roadmap was set up by Defra involuntary initiative involving over 300 companies along the clothing supply chain and co-ordinated by Defra to provide a platform for an integrated approach to sustainable clothing throughout the sector.

I have a really strong interest in sustainable clothing and whilst there are some amazing eco brands and designers emerging at the moment, I believe that in order for sustainable clothing to become more mainstream and the majority of people to start buying more sustainability, changes need to be made at the high street, supermarket (and equivalent online retailer level) as well as the designer and higher end. I also love British high street clothing and think it would be great if there were more sustainable choices available making it easier, more convenient and more cost effective to choose the sustainable option.

The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan covers all sorts of initiatives from labelling to recycling, education and setting up greener factories and I think there have been some major steps forward in some of these areas. But for the purpose of this post I am concentrating on the actions which include introducing more sustainable choices for the consumer.

Marks and Spencers and Tesco's led the way with actions which included trialing new fibres such as bamboo,renewable plastics and extending the ranges of clothes made from sustainable fabrics like recycled polyester and organic cotton.

I decided to have a look at some of the most popular UK fashion retailers to to see what they are doing in terms of offering more sustainable choices and where they are now. I am not suggesting that these retailers are particularly good or bad as I guess there are those doing both better and worse than the ones that I have chosen to look at, I just wanted to give an overall picture of the progress so far.

Marks and Spencers
Currently not stocking any organic cotton or recycled clothing unless you count the organic cotton eco bags and an umbrella made from recycled polyester. They do however have 4 different styles of Fairtrade cotton t shirts. Really disappointed by this as Marks and Spencers was one of the leading names involved, was instrumental in setting up the 'Plan A' and is also such a key part of the UK high street.

Tesco sell a range of organic cotton jeans by the brand Monkee Genes. They also sell 2 pieces of Fairtrade cotton clothing for women. This is fairly disappointing too as I had high hopes for Tesco following their collaboration with From Somewhere. This was obviously a one off.

As a relatively new fashion retailer that is only online allowing it to react quickly to customers needs, it is perhaps not surprising that ASOS has made significant progress. They have their own Green Room selling ethical and sustainable clothing. The Green Room has a good selection of organic, Fairtrade and recycled clothes from a range of green brands including affordable Annie Greenabelle as well as their own ASOS Africa brand. The only issue is that sometimes it is difficult to work out from the website how the varying brands are ethical or eco friendly.

Urban Outfitters
Although they have very little in the way of organic cotton clothes, Urban Outfitters do have a Renewal collection which features some really on trend clothes include vintage, recycled and remade pieces. The collection currently includes some really desirable pieces including a leather skirt, floral baby doll dress and a remade trench coat.

So quite a mixed result. Those retailers that were really involved in the action plan at the beginning seem to have done very little (if anything at all) to increase the choice of sustainable clothing that they sell (please correct me if I am wrong). There are however some who are making a move in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.

I have looked at the DEFRA Website to see if there are any further details on what has happened so far in terms of increased sustainable choice in fashion, but I can't find anything recent to show that.

Is it just me? I am being impatient? did I just expect too much? It seems that over the last few years, countless small businesses have launched selling sustainable clothing and yet some of the bigger retailers haven't even launched a small line of organic cotton clothing yet. I am also always disappointed when I want to buy myself something new on the high street and I struggle to find anything that is made of natural materials as opposed to synthetics.

Your thoughts?

Ceri X


lisa said...

One of the big challenges that sustainable fashion faces is that it costs more. For consumers accustomed to paying bottom dollar for their clothes, paying a bit more for the principle of sustainability may not be too appealing. It'd be interesting to see if more high street retailers switch to organic cotton fabrics and sustainable options, especially in the face of rising cotton and labour costs in the global market.

Leia said...

It shouldn't be so hard to find clothing made with natural materials! It annoys me too.


tonax said...

There are some online retailers featuring hip clothing made from organic materials include upstarts like ShopEnvi, Bamboo Styles, Grassroots Natural Goods, and better-known outlets like Gaiam. Even Wal-Mart and Target are now stocking a wide range of organic cotton clothing. To find other organic clothing retailers, the online repository of all things green, EcoMall, offers an impressive listing of sources for a wide range of cool, green-friendly garments on its clothing page. Another website, EcoBusinessLinks, provides a listing as well on its Natural Clothing Retailers Page.

jesse.anne.o said...

I agree that "in order for sustainable clothing to become more mainstream and the majority of people to start buying more sustainability, changes need to be made at the high street, supermarket (and equivalent online retailer level) as well as the designer and higher end" as well!

I do understand that sourcing some of this stuff (especially at larger scales) is sometimes hard for larger retail stores to do...but there should at least be some effort. A few t-shirts shouldn't be it.

I think we're right to be disappointed.