Column Topshop recently launched its third “Reclaim to Wear” capsule collection—an upcycled collection from the label From Somewhere —focused on floral print items including camisoles, culottes, dresses, denim skirts, jackets and jeans. It purports the benefits of upcycling as the new direction of fashion. But is it? We go behind the label to find out.
Topshop, the beloved British clothing retailer, operates more than 400 stores worldwide, with 300 of them in the UK. Four U.S. Topshop locations do quite a bit of business for the chain as well as the 52 stateside Nordstrom locations that sell Topshop items. Three more U.S. stores are slated to open in the next year.
Topshop has had a considerable amount of success with its Reclaim to Wear collections. “Customer response has, once again, been hugely enthusiastic, encouraging us to further develop the range and tap into the growing profile of upcycling,” says the Arcadia Group, the parent company for Topshop.
“We have been really proud to work with the Topshop team on the Reclaim To Wear collections, inspiring them to include upcycling as part of their practice,” Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci, of From Somewhere who launched Reclaim to Wear in 1997 have said of the collection. “This is really an important step: one dress at a time, starting small, we are beginning to see that design can influence not just our style, but the way we think about clothes.”
Now in its third iteration, the success of Reclaim to Wear can only mean the brand is seeing the collection turn into profits. “Reclaim to Wear, our range of up-cycled clothing (created from fabric that would otherwise be treated as waste) continues to grow, both in terms of scale and worldwide availability,” says the Arcadia Group, “last year’s [Reclaim to Wear] collection sold out in a matter of days.” Customers want upcycled fashion, it seems.
How environmentally-friendly is the brand in general?
According to the Arcadia Group, “some” of its brands adhere to “progressive environmental initiatives in place at our factories including rainwater harvesting for dyeing processes, dryers equipped with heat recovery units for energy efficiency and energy-efficient lighting.”
Specifically, the Arcadia Group says that Topshop follows a “sustain” initiative “that aims to deliver sustainability into the brand’s ranges via a mix of local sourcing, reclamation and environmentally friendly processes.”
In its UK backyard, Topshop’s ‘Made in the UK’ project goes “from strength to strength, reflecting a wider trend of sourcing some products closer to home.”
The Arcadia Group says that packaging standards for suppliers “have been in place for a number of years and they already save the business approximately 500 tonnes of excess packaging a year.”
With an emphasis on decreasing the carbon footprint of its brands, the Arcadia Group participates in the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP)’s 2020 commitment, which “aims to improve the UK clothing industry’s environmental footprint.”
Topshop may be doing well with its upcycled collection, but it’s lumped in the fast-fashion category along with retailers like Forever 21, Zara and H&M. It has a history of controversy, including human rights issues connected to using cotton picked in Uzbekistan by slaves. Topshop also refused to join the Ethical Trading Initiative that earned it criticism from the student campaign group People & Planet.
The chain was also targeted over issues with tax payments in 2010 and 2011, specifically, protesters took aim at CEO Philip Green’s wife, who they said was “living in a tax haven,” and essentially protecting Green’s money from taxes.
Fans of Rihanna may recall that the superstar won a lawsuit against the retailer in 2013, seeking $1.4 million in damages because the chain used images of her face on T-shirts without her permission.
Just last month, Brazilian mall owners sued Topshop for failure to pay rent, even though there have been lines of customers out the door, in some cases, with a four-hour wait.
In recent news, Topshop is taking its clothing to China—not to be manufactured, but to sell—via online retailer Shangpin.com. But is it in poor taste when the brand has been called out extensively for its support of sweatshop conditions, even if they’re not in China? Topshop was targeted in 2007 by the UK advocacy group No Sweat, for allegedly employing slave labor conditions at factories in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. According to No Sweat, Jane Shepherdson, who resigned from Topshop as brand director, said “consumers cannot keep buying cheap clothes and ‘not ask where they come from.’”
Topshop was also called out for its 2007 Kate Moss collection, which used sweatshop conditions and slave labor.
According to TriplePundit:
Topshop’s sweatshop labor scandal goes back at least ten years when it was revealed that the store was using immigrant laborers working in potentially dangerous conditions in London’s East End. More recently, the chain has been accused of keeping costs down and boosting billionaire Sir Philip Green’s empire by giving minimal pay to Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis to work 12 hour days, six days a week producing Kate Moss’s popular Topshop clothing line. An undercover investigation by a British news channel also got footage of “dirty, dangerous and appalling conditions” in a UK factory, and found employees being paid illegally at half the minimum wage.
There was also a bit of a struggle with the retailer over the Bangladeshi Safety Accord. Only after months of relentless pressure, Topshop finally joined the Bangladeshi Safety Accord last year. More than 80 top fashion brands had already signed in support of preventing disasters like Rana Plaza from happening ever again before Topshop agreed.
So, even if the brand is offering “upcycled” collections and taking some steps to reduce its carbon footprint, can those small eco collections really cancel out labor and human rights issues? Does it mean that tax and rent evasion, or stealing celebrity likeness for profit don’t matter? Of course not.
Add to that the fact that Reclaim to Wear’s “upcycled” clothing isn’t coming from the piles of clothes going to landfills every year. The company is simply upcycling production scraps from other collections. Meaning, Reclaim to Wear isn’t decreasing the production of “new” clothing, its existence actually relies on it. So in that sense, how upcycled is it really?
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
Related on EcoSalon
Image: rick chung