Fast Fashion vs Luxury Fashion: Is one more sustainable than the other and should companies aim to do better?

Typically, luxury brands are seen as the more sustainable option when compared to fast fashion. This is due to their high prices, exclusivity and quality. They have been able to benefit from this illusion in the past while cheaper brands took a hit due to having significantly lower prices and being more accessible. High levels of  accessibility and low prices led to certain retailers  being labelled as fast fashion. The speed at which they do this has been described as being like a conveyor belt of clothing by Greenpeace.  But should high fashion luxury brands automatically be seen as more sustainable simply because they cost more? After all, the fashion industry as a whole is said to produce around 10% of global greenhouse gases.

Burberry. When you think of Burberry you think of a London-based luxury fashion brand who makes high quality and expensive clothes. This leads to an assumption that they must be sustainable. After all, a lot of work and craftsmanship clearly went into making these exclusive, high-priced clothes, bags and shoes. While it isn’t untrue that a lot of work goes into making these clothes, it may surprise you to know that they are questions around sustainability. In 2018, Burberry was found to be burning up to $37 million in merchandise in order to prevent the ‘wrong people’ from getting hold of it. Burning products to avoid an overflow of inventory is not sustainable and can cause serious environmental damage. What’s more is that it is wasteful to make clothing items that won’t ever be worn and deciding to dispose of them when they could have potentially been donated to people in need. Clearly being luxury does not equal sustainability. Due to the outcry over this, Burberry did make a statement announcing they would stop burning their unsold products with immediate effect. But will they make further changes when it comes to sustainability such as using recycled materials and still maintaining a high level of quality? They have already have announced carbon neutral shows, that they aim to be net-zero by 2040, and that they aim to use more sustainable materials by 2025, but is this enough? Chain high street brands have already made significant changes in order to lower their impact, so why can’t luxury brands make those changes just as quickly too? 

On the flip side we have H&M. A stereotypical fast fashion company who consistently brings out new items of clothing regularly. The difference between some luxury brands and H&M is that H&M have recognised that they are part of the problem and have taken steps to rectify their environmental impact. They have introduced the concept of ‘conscious points’ which is where you earn points based on your conscious choices. This works in three ways: purchase, garment recycling and own bag. ‘Purchase’ requires you to purchase a sustainable item and this will be labelled on the tag as being conscious. H&M’s conscious range is made from at least 50% of sustainable materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester and products do not lack quality. I bought my newest winter coat from the conscious range and its safe to say that it is one of the best coats I have owned (I also earned 54 points for it). Garment recycling works exactly as you would think it works. You bring in an item of clothing to your local store and you recycle it in the labelled ‘bin’. In return you will receive a discount on your next purchase as well as 20 conscious points. The garments do not need to be from H&M either, meaning it can save from a lot of clothing going into landfill if you just throw it out. ‘Own bag’ is also pretty self-explanatory. If you bring in your own bag to stores you will get 3 points with your purchase. As a result you will be cutting down on waste and helping the planet, all while you treat yourself on a shopping spree. H&M have been accused of ‘greenwashing’ as they still use synthetic materials even in their conscious range, but the retailer has said that they are aware of the negative impacts of this and are working on minimising how many synthetic materials (such as polyester which can be seen at least at 27% in their conscious range) and that they know that it is not a long-term solution both for their brand and also for the fashion industry. I personally do think this is something that brands in general need to work on, but I am reassured by the fact the H&M themselves are fully aware of the issue and that they are already working on improvements and have schemes in place such as their recycling scheme. 

The take-away from the above examples is that high fashion does not automatically equate to sustainability and fast fashion is not always completely unsustainable. Of course there are fast-fashion brands that are unstainable in many ways, but it does not mean that all fast-fashion brands are necessarily ‘bad’. Just like there are some high fashion luxury brands that try their best to minimise their effect on the environment. The key thing to remember is if you want to be more sustainable then do your research into your brands, the same as you would if you wanted to buy from cruelty-free or vegan brands. It is possible to buy from both and still be environmentally friendly in your purchase choices. Companies should aim to do better, but we, as consumers, should also do the same. Instead of mindlessly buying clothes to follow a trend, we should sit back and ask ourselves if we really need to buy something we will likely only wear once or twice for the sake of a trend? The answer will probably be no.

This blog post was written by Charlotte Hoggarth, who is in her penultimate year of the MLaw degree. She enjoys reading and going for coffees with her friends. Charlotte hopes to secure a training contract upon graduating.