Was 2022 the most important year for sustainable fashion? #626


From widespread protests and legislative action, to screaming matches on Twitter about Shein – we travel back over the year in sustainability

Here we are at the end of another year of trying to carve out a fashion industry which doesn’t eat the planet and itself. The idea of securing a climate that human beings can actually live in and a world that isn’t strewn shore to shore with mountains of discarded clothes seems utterly reasonable on the surface, but the battle of wills rages on thanks to the never-ending quest for two things: profit, and discourse.

I have personally declared every single one of the past four years a ~big year~ for sustainable fashion, but I am declaring this one the biggest yet, thanks to a whole host of factors like widespread protests, multiple pieces of legislation, and screaming matches on Twitter about how Shein is Marxist, actually. Let’s explore what happened in 2022…

Shein Reigned

Shein chose the very moment there was a collective glimmer of hope for a better industry and swept in with a big “fuck you”. Generating what the Business of Fashion called an “incomparable churn” of products, it blew rivals Boohoo, Zara, and H&M out of the water and no one has been able to escape its lead-ridden clothes since. Known for copying indie designers and paying workers just 3p per garment, it tried to rehabilitate its image by giving The Or Foundation $15 million and launching a resale platform. The brand’s CEO has made $23.5 billion by exploiting people and the planet, but thanks to an army of fans who are willing to argue that it’s some kind of charitable entity which exists only to clothe the poor rather than, say, a capitalist machine stepping on those very poor people at every given opportunity, it was named the most popular brand of 2022. Great!

Brands got called out for greenwashing

This year and last saw the introduction of a host of new greenwashing guidelines, and it turns out brands have been breaking the rules this whole time. Who would have guessed? H&M found itself hit by multiple class action lawsuits for “misleadingly, illegally, and deceptively” capitalising on green trends, leading consumers to believe its ‘Conscious Choice’ products are environmentally responsible. It cancelled its ‘Conscious Choice’ indicator as a result. Zalando won the Norwegian Consumer Authority’s 2022 greenwashing award and ditched its sustainability flag, and ASOS removed its ‘Responsible Edit’ after a greenwashing investigation. The Competition and Markets Authority warned this was “just the start”.

The Higg Index felle from grace

You might never have heard of the Higg Index, but brands have been using the tool, which was developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, as a basis for materials choices and sustainability claims for years. This year the reliability of the index unravelled as the Norwegian Consumer Authority and the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets ruled that it needed reviewing and improving. That may have been putting it lightly, as the likes of Quartz and the New York Times tore it to shreds – not least because the index strongly favoured fossil fuel-based synthetics over natural materials based on flawed data provided by a plastics manufacturer association. Who would have possibly thought that a tool which allowed the worst offenders to paint themselves as sustainable could be problematic?

Grand gestures were trending

2022 was the year of the grand gesture. Shein’s efforts were notable but not alone. Zara launched rental and repair, the Earth became Patagonia’s only shareholder, Vestiaire Collective banned fast fashion, Kering and L’Occitane launched a £258 million Climate Fund for Nature at COP15 for biodiversity, and Boohoo launched a sustainability campaign with noted environmentalist Kourtney Kardashian Barker. Copenhagen Fashion Week got in on the action too, first by banning fur then announcing a raft of sustainability requirements for brands who wish to show.

Regulation, regulation, regulation

Campaigners have been calling for fashion regulation for literally decades and in 2022 it finally started to materialise. Senate Bill 62, aka the Garment Worker Protection Act, was effective from January 1, eliminating piece work and guaranteeing the minimum wage for California garment workers. The FABRIC Act was introduced in the US to try and make brands and retailers jointly accountable for wage violations and incentivise onshore manufacturing, among other things and, if it passes, the New York Fashion Act would mandate things like supply chain disclosure and climate targets. In the EU, the European Commission aims to introduce legal requirements for the longevity, repairability, and recyclability of clothes, while the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign demands a living wage for garment workers. Is regulation glamorous? No. But could it transform fashion? Yes.

New designers were doing the work

We know the big names get the spotlight but unsurprisingly, it’s emerging, independent brands and designers who are doing the really interesting, innovative work. Loewe tapped the talents of Spanish designer Paula Ulargui Escalona to create living, growing garments and shoes for SS23, while Stem aka Sarah Brunnhuber, created the zero waste manufacturing system which Ganni showcased as part of its 2022 Fabrics of the Future. Thebe Magugu’s SS23 collection, Discard Theory, elevated the practice of upcycling to a sleek, luxurious level, created from secondhand garments and fabrics sourced by rummaging through piles of discarded clothing at Dunusa market, Johannesburg. And Magugu wasn’t the only one who chose to rework ‘waste’ instead of creating it. NEWGENS’s Conor Ives, SS Daley, and Robyn Lynch, Fashion East’s Jawara Alleyne, all made a case for new-from-old during 2022.

Global action was centre stage

Strikes became the political backdrop of the UK in 2022, but they didn’t end at our shores. Garment workers went on strike and held demonstrations in nations including Eswatini, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Haiti, and Cambodia, while a global week of action against adidas took place in October. Action against Levi’s has been building, while the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report from Remake, an organisation which is instrumental in numerous global campaigns including #PayUp, has laid bare exactly which brands are falling short and where. Against corporate and government road blocks, global action and solidarity continues to thrive.