ASOS is all-conquering – what does it mean for sustainability?

ASOS has done so well recently that the company’s CEO has confidently proclaimed the brand to be ‘the number one destination for fashion-loving 20-somethings’.  Like Boohoo, ASOS has been one of the few fashion retailers to do incredibly well in the past year.  Being a digital-only retailer has been a clear advantage for ASOS, for obvious reasons. 

The brand quickly switched their focus from going out dresses and heels to causal wear in 2020.  It worked: Their latest results, for the six months to the end of February 2021, report a sales increase of 24%.  Growth came partly from existing customers spending more, and partly from attracting an additional 1.5 million new customers.  Not bad at all. 

What does this mean for sustainability in fashion?  There have been lots of concerns raised in relationship to ASOS specifically, and fast fashion online in general.  How valid are those worries?

What happens to returns?

Reports that clothes bought online and then returned are incinerated or landfilled (the horror!) attracted much negative publicity a couple of years ago.  ASOS has a zero-landfill policy, with 97% of their returns being resold and 3% recycled or reused elsewhere.  That’s a really good thing, but it’s still worth considering the carbon footprint of orders being shipped and then returned.  The zero-landfill policy that ASOS and other retailers have introduced shows that brands can and do respond when customers get concerned about environmental impacts.  

How sustainable are the clothes?

Sustainability doesn’t feature prominently on ASOS’s website.   The homepage shouts brand first, then occasion.  Occasion of the moment is ‘al fresco flow’.  But dig a bit deeper and there are some clothes designed with sustainability in mind.  For example, many of ASOS’s own-brand jeans use 50% less water during washing, ageing and finishing compared with conventional jeans.  Other jeans styles support Cotton made in Africa (CmiA)’s sustainable farming programme. 

I couldn’t resist a little look at the yoga wear, some of which is made using Better Cotton Initiative cotton.   The Better Cotton Initiative is a fantastic organisation that encourages the production of cotton in a way that minimises water usage, promotes biodiversity and is better for farming communities. 

ASOS marketplace has a very strong preloved collection, including collections from charities. On the other hand, there are a load of clothes that aren’t sustainable at all, made from non-sustainable materials including virgin polyester. 

What is ASOS’s sustainability policy? 

The brand boasts that 34% of all fibres used in ASOS brands come from sustainable sources, and that they’ve decreased the carbon intensity per customer order.  However, their environmental commitments are vague: “Ensure environmental and climate change criteria are taken into account in the procurement and provision of goods and services.”  This is very different to other brands which have made hard commitments such as 100% of their materials being sustainable by 2030, or achieving carbon neutrality.  ASOS’s policy is relatively weak.  

What’s the bottom line?

I’m surprised that ASOS doesn’t make more of its sustainability credentials.  They do have plenty of clothes made from recycled polyester, BCI cotton, or that are produced with water stewardship in mind.  But it’s not at all easy to find them.  This also means that the brand isn’t helping raise awareness among consumers, nor is it encouraging shoppers to opt for more sustainable choices. 

ASOS offers oh-so-tempting fast fashion.  It’s normal to be enticed to update your wardrobe with new clothes, especially for a particular occasion like getting out to the pub after lockdown.  The problem with that is that it leads to over-consumption, and all the pollution and environmental damage that causes. 

All this combined with ASOS’s not-awful but relatively weak environmental commitments is worrying, given the brand’s relentless growth. 

#sustainablefashion #sustainability #ethicalfashion #preloved

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