The Price of Profit

By Meriem Cherif

Fast fashion, an industry amassing $31.4 billion dollars in 2020, holds infamy for its controversies and mistreatment of workers. With campaigns around the world and documentaries like The True Cost, consumers are no stranger to the exploitation that goes into making their favorite outfit. Luckily, corporations have responded, with many rolling out with new sustainable clothing lines. With names like Conscious Collection and Join Life, companies like H&M and Zara are seemingly taking a step in the right direction—but are they actually living up to their mission statements?

Unfortunately, the sustainability of these collections only seem to go as far as their marketing. Public Eye, a Swiss investigative group, researched into the steps and cost of producing a Zara hoodie printed with ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me’ on the front. For each hoodie, the price going into paying workers totaled the equivalent $2.46 USD, a number equalling less than half the profit margin they turn out. The Turkish textile workers making the hoodie earn approximately $270-$350 monthly, an unsustainable pay in their region where the cost of living nearly triples their wage. 

The news is dismal with H&M too, who use the buzz word “sustainable” without clearly defining its meaning. They state that 57% of their products are made with recycled or sustainably sourced materials, but they never provide any more information about their sourcing. Furthermore, with no industry standard for sustainably sourced products, no one really knows what the phrase means, its definition varying from corporation to corporation 

More than their unclear sustainable clothing lines, H&M and Zara are notorious for their use of sweatshops and exploitative labor practices. In 2017, controversy stirred as shoppers in Zara found notes in products stating: “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” Although the notes could not be traced back to their writers, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, confirmed that factory workers in the surrounding region created clothing without ever receiving pay, after the owner ran off with the money.

The “sustainability” practices of H&M and Zara are a far cry from companies like Patagonia, who provide the address for every farm, mill, and factory that produces their garments. Reformation, a store popular for their dresses, created the RefScale, which tracks their environmental footprint and has allowed them to be carbon-neutral since 2015. Stores like Patagonia and Reformation show the feasibility of going sustainable, a practice that is steadily being picked up by more and more companies.

From unclear sustainability to a blatant exploitation of labor, H&M and Zara must seriously reform their production standards and practices to fulfill the promises they make— ensuring consumers can buy products with peace of mind.