River Island has been my absolute favourite clothing brand for a decade. Their colourful and vibrant collections have appealed to me greatly since the day I stepped in their store for the first time.
Their colourful and vibrant collections still appeal to me very much, and for me it’s always risky to visit their store, because it’s rare for me to leave there without something new in the bag.
But since jumping on this sustainability wagon, I can no longer ignore the fact that River Island is just as much a fast fashion company, as Primark and H&M are. Or is it?
This July River Island pulled back some items from their stores due to finding unhealthy amounts of toxic chemicals on them. Those chemicals can harm people who wear the clothes, and have already harmed the people who made those clothes. Obviously, it’s not just these 3 items that consist of harmful chemicals, though.
It’s been surprisingly difficult to find any unbiased and objective information on how ethical a brand River Island actually is or isn’t. Most of the info available can be found on River Island’s own website, which poses the question, can we rely on what they say?
Particularly as a blogger, I have a responsibility to stick to what I promise. And it would be too hypocritical of me to keep buying from River Island, if they are a fast fashion brand, while preaching how essential switching your buying habits to more sustainable direction is.
First I want to explain exactly what I mean with ‘ecological‘ and ‘sustainable‘ brands because these terms are used by brands in a completely misleading context.
Sustainability in fashion
This is often thought of as a definition for clothes and accessories that were made to last for decades; they cost more because they were made to sustain the ravages of time.
But in fact ‘sustainability’ is a much larger concept:
Sustainable fashion is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than addressing fashion textiles or products. It comprises addressing the whole system of fashion. This means dealing with interdependent social, cultural, ecological and financial systems. It also means considering fashion from the perspective of many stakeholders – users and producers, all living species, contemporary and future dwellers on earth.
Sustainability is not just the responsibility of the brands and their stakeholders but also our responsibility. We consumers are the driving force in sustainability becoming a mainstream phenomena; if we do not prefer sustainable brands, then there will be no sustainable brands and the world will fall (slightly dramatic?… Actually not.)
Eco fashion is a familiar concept to most of us from many years ago already. But many brands, that have these ‘green eco collections’ are actually not eco at all. For example, H&M’s Conscious collection is nothing but greenwashing.
What is that? It means promoting ecological operations through green PRs even though their actual operations are as green as the Sahara desert.
Instead, an actual ecological brand puts real effort on finding environmentally friendly ways to produce, store and ship garments. These brands often also have systems in place for people to dispose of those garments in an environmentally friendly manner rather than sending them to landfills.
The problem with big fast fashion brands literally lying to consumers via greenwashing is that it makes it seem like an impossible battle to win: how can you ever be sure what brand is and which isn’t sustainable?
Just google ‘fast fashion brands‘ and you will get a list of brands that you should avoid, starting today.
Getting back to the matter of River Island, it was listed in the ‘Fast Fashion Brands’ list on Wikipedia. And it doesn’t surprise me, but we also know that a lot of brands are changing their operations and paying more attention to these trending issues that will shape the future of consumption.
For example, River Island moved quite a chunk of its production from China back into the UK in 2012. So, there are signs of movement to the right direction every now and then. But is it enough?
Let’s take a look at the information I did find:
Is River Island A Sustainable/Ethical Brand?
The problem I have with this, is that River Island’s word on the matter is the only word on the matter. I haven’t found any outside accounts on whether any of the alleged case studies on their Modern Slavery Statement are at all true.
It’s easy to write these reports – I should know, I work on creating content like this – so personally I cannot rely on their own word. Perhaps they do make these surprise audits to factories in Bangladesh, and attempt to correct the misconducts, and perhaps they don’t.
Also, their CSR declaration only talks about being environmentally conscious when it comes to their stores, offices and warehouses. All in Europe. This does not include the factories in poor countries, which are the exact reason why sustainability and ecological operations are such a huge topic right now.
The few reports on brands’ ethical and sustainable operations that included River Island were rating clothing brands as ‘ethical‘ on very loose and poor terms:
For example, if a brand had brought their code of conduct up to Ethical Trading Initiative’s standard and was engaging Action, Collaboration and Transformation (ACT) on issues like paying a living wage to their employees, it justified them getting the ethical stamp.
Even if their actual everyday operations do not comply with these guidelines. Sorry dudes, but agreeing with guidelines and writing codes of conduct is NOT enough. The whole point is, do you act on them.
The reports even discussed how in practice these guidelines and operations are often shunned, but still they rated these brands as ‘ecological’. I’m smelling money changing hands here…
Lack of transparency has always been a huge issue with the fashion industry. In 2013 we got proof of exactly how serious this issue is: the collapse of Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh killed 1100 underpaid and overworked people.
And for what? So that you can get a new shiny top that will end up in landfill within the next year, and the owner of the brand can buy another yacht.
At the end of the day, we know that River Island’s clothes are produced in poor, underdeveloped countries where they do not bother with employee rights. The clothes include toxic chemicals, and nothing is being done to stop using such toxic chemicals.
So, it’s safe to say that, despite some websites claiming that River Island isn’t the worst kind, it in fact is. And I can’t justify to myself buying their clothes anymore.
I have a lot of River Island clothes in my closet, what will I do with them? I think that throwing them away, as a result of this decision, would be counterproductive. They are also my favourite pieces, so I will keep wearing them, taking care of them, and hopefully will be able to wear them for years and years to come.
That’s my approach to sustainability: instead of buying new, sustainably produced clothes, I re-style the clothes that I already have in my closet.
What’s your take on this ‘green wave’ in fashion, and the #FashionRevolution? Does it inspire you, or do you think it’s a war with no winners? Comment below, e-mail me, or DM me on Twitter on Instagram and let’s discuss! ♥