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  • Elizabeth Paton

8 Big Moments In Responsible Fashion You May Have Missed

Off the back of a rollercoaster year, the garment trade is being forced to shape up. By Elizabeth Paton

Photography by Averie Woodard/Unsplash.

Who gets to decide what is green or greenwashing? Is it a good thing that more celebrities and reality stars are embracing pre-loved clothing? How much should governments step in when it comes to sustainability? What protections do garment workers have? These are just some of the questions that dominate the debate about how the fashion industry can reduce its impact on the planet and safeguard its hundreds of thousands of workers in poor countries. Soaring energy prices in Europe, global supply chain disruptions and spikes in the cost of living in many parts of the world are expected to pose challenges for an industry under pressure from regulators and consumers to find meaningful solutions — fast. Here are some of the most important new developments in responsible fashion.

Shein continued its fast-fashion dominance

A lot of people don’t know how to pronounce Shein (it’s “she-in”), the Chinese fast-fashion behemoth, but chances are they’ve probably heard of it, shopped for its clothes or perhaps even boycotted it.

Shein grabbed plenty of headlines in 2022: there were workplace investigations and allegations of elevated levels of lead in some products. At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in June, Shein pledged $US15 million ($AU22 million) over three years to the Or Foundation, a charity working at Kantamanto, the world’s largest secondhand clothing market, in Accra, Ghana. The pledge prompted suggestions of greenwashing as the company continued to make a fortune from sales of supercheap clothes.

It’s hard to tell whether these negative reports have affected the company. According to research compiled by the price comparison website and published in December, Shein was the world’s most popular fashion brand last year. After analysis of a year’s worth of search data on Google, Shein topped the list of most-searched-for brands in 113 countries in the world, beating Zara to the top spot.

Patagonia’s founder gave away his company

Patagonia has long positioned itself as a brand at the forefront of the war against climate change, giving away 1 per cent of its sales to environmental causes since 1985. But this year, the outdoor clothing retailer’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, took a bold step: he gave his company away.

He, his wife and children handed Patagonia to a nonprofit group, designed to ensure that all of the company’s profits — some $149 million a year — are used to fund conservation efforts around the globe. While it is a move that, according to Bloomberg, will allow the Chouinard family to avoid a substantial tax hit, it also may set a precedent for fashion’s numerous other mega-rich dynasties.

Photography by Alyssa Strohmann/Unsplash

Stars did a different kind of turn on the red carpet

In 2022, the message spread that for the fashion industry to reduce its environmental footprint, more brands will need to incorporate repair, resale and rental services into their business models. Spurred by the rise in popularity of rental clothing, which has already been embraced by influencers, a handful of megawatt stars also began renting high fashion for red-carpet appearances. A recent notable outing was by the Princess of Wales wearing a Kermit green off-the-shoulder frock by Emilia Wickstead to the Earthshot Prize Awards ceremony in Boston that she rented for 74 pounds, about $132, from the UK-based website Hurr.

Big questions about how fashion measures progress

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has been one of fashion’s most powerful sustainability-focused trade groups. Its tools, known as the Higg Index, are used by companies including Walmart, Nike and H&M Group, and were seen as a de facto industry standard to measure environmental and social impact. Until it wasn’t.

Regulators in Norway said this past autumn that Higg data was not sufficient for environmental marketing claims. A Quartz investigation found H&M’s environmental scores were sometimes “misleading” and “outright deceptive”. And a New York Times article said the index strongly favoured synthetic materials made from fossil fuels over natural ones like cotton or leather. Fuelled by other controversies such as the fraudulent auditing of organic cotton in India, the debate over how fashion can create a standardised way to measure and substantiate sustainability claims by companies is only getting more heated, with no clear solution in sight.

Photography Jasmin Chew/Unsplash.

New laws aiming to fix the industry

Many governments last year seemed to wake up to the fact that companies are not reforming themselves at a pace and scale that will meaningfully combat climate change. Last January, organisers of the Fashion Act introduced a bill in the U.S. that, if passed, would make New York the first state to pass legislation that would set broad sustainability regulations.

In May, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the federal FABRIC Act, aiming to introduce better workplace protections for U.S. garment workers as well as manufacturing incentives. In November, the European Commission proposed new rules to reduce packaging waste that would affect things like perfume bottles and e-commerce packaging. Beefing up government oversight may be a messy and slow process, but its start has climate advocates encouraged.

A changing relationship fast fashion and reality TV

The symbiotic relationship between reality television shows and fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova, Shein and Boohoo is well established. But in May, “Love Island UK”, the hit reality dating show that has turned scores of contestants into influencers, embraced a new sponsor, eBay. For several years, “Love Island UK” contestants wore the brand I Saw It First, which sells clothes for as little as $4.50 (“Love Island Australia” partnered with trend-driven retailer Showpo for 2021). But in the current UK season, contestants wear pre-loved clothes and accessories to promote responsible shopping.

New materials and manufacturing processes

The fashion industry is still heavily reliant on fossil-fuel-based fabrics and materials. A December report by the environmental lobbying group Changing Markets Foundation found that brands continue to mask a dependence on synthetics under the guise of increasing their commitment to sustainable materials.

Still, while invention should not be overly prioritised over implementation, which is what really guarantees change, a number of innovations drew attention this year that have the potential to change some fashion manufacturing processes. A new textile recycling plant in Sweden, run by Renewcell, which creates a material called Circulose from cotton waste, said it has reached its full production capacity after signing deals with brands like H&M and Zara.

Stella McCartney, who invested in Mylo, a mycelium material produced by Bolt Threads, as part of a 2020 consortium including Kering, Adidas and Lululemon, introduced a new venture with Protein Evolution that will process leftover mixed nylon and polyesters into new material for use in new clothing. And innovative textiles like seaweed fabric, mushroom leather and pea silk have also been gaining momentum, as well as Spinnova, a natural fibre that is compostable and recyclable and made without water or any harmful chemicals.

Garment workers stood up for their rights

Fashion brands rarely own the factories that make their clothes. The vast majority of garment and footwear orders are outsourced to suppliers in emerging markets, where overhead is cheap and the cost of human labour is even cheaper. In 2022, hundreds of thousands of garment workers, who power the global clothing trade, took to the streets to protest wages and working conditions as inflation and cancelled orders took a toll. In Haiti, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan, many used social media to alert the world to their cause.

The news in December that factory workers in Pakistan would now be protected under the International Accord, a legally enforceable health and safety agreement, was a significant step. But the furore at the start of the World Cup over the mistreatment of thousands of workers making soccer uniforms was another stark reminder that there remains a long way to go.

© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 86 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “8 Big Moments In Responsible Fashion You May Have Missed”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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