October 06, 2020

With the recent news on Topshop, we take a deep dive into how sustainable Topshop really was...

Topshop is not the first company that comes to mind when thinking about sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion - and there’s a good reason for that. 

Over recent years they have been plagued by scandal after scandal, creating headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Yet Topshop are now publicly trying to put sustainability at the top of their agenda, or at least this is what they would have us believe. 

The truth is somewhat less than clear. Improvements have been made, but there is still a long way to go before they can truly be considered a sustainable and environmentally friendly brand. 

It’s time to find out the truth behind Topshop's sustainable ambitions and answer a simple question, is Topshop a sustainable and environmentally friendly brand, or is it all for show? 

Why do we need Topshop to become sustainable and eco-friendly?

Sustainable and eco friendly fashion will never become mainstream without the Topshop’s of the world championing the cause.

By trying to become more eco friendly, Topshop is proving to other fast fashion retailers that sustainability is financially viable. They are also helping to spread the message of sustainable fashion to consumers who might otherwise not be aware of the problems that fast fashion creates. 

For sustainable fashion to truly become mainstream, large retailers like Topshop need to lead the way, pioneer new innovations and help educate the masses. As people come to expect more, other fashion brands will be forced to change.

This fact is important to remember as you read through the remainder of this article. By making an effort to change, Topshop is helping to drag an outdated industry into the 21st century. 

However, is the primary motive genuinely to make a difference to the planet, or is the intention only to be seen as green? Afterall, sustainability is fast becoming popular in the world of fashion. 

It’s time to turn a critical eye to Topshop's true intentions and find out whether this is all for show. This article will focus on answering the question, is Topshop a sustainable brand. The next article asks the question, is Topshop ethical?

Is Topshop a sustainable brand?

You don’t have to look hard to realise that Topshop have taken steps towards becoming a more sustainable and eco friendly brand in 2020. 

Among other things, Topshop have introduced sustainable ranges, increased transportation efficiencies and moved to sustainable packaging.

Yet as you will read in this article, they still have a long way to go until they can truly be called a sustainable brand. 

Is Topshop Eco Friendly?

There are a number of eco friendly organisations that Topshop have partnered with to help them become more sustainable.

These include The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP)Industry Acting on MicrofibresWWF Leather Buyers PlatformAlliance for Responsible DenimBetter Cotton Initiative and Canopy.

These are the type of partnerships that will enable fast fashion giants like Topshop to achieve a sustainable future. 

How sustainable is Topshop?

Through the Better Cotton Initiative, Topshop is helping to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, the environment it grows in, and ensure a cleaner future for the sector. 

Similarly CanopyStyle is an organisation aiming to protect the world's endangered forests and help brands be more sustainable. CanopyStyle’s purpose is to partner with companies like Topshop to help them reduce the amount of wood pulp used to produce fabrics such as rayon, modal and lyocell. In fact, more than 150 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric, and sadly this number has doubled since 2013.

Initiatives like these are true steps in the right direction. However, it is not clear exactly how much of the cotton or lyocell they use adheres to these guidelines. 

Already we start to see cracks forming in their sustainable promises.

topshop sustainable collectionimage: topshop.com

What does Considered mean on Topshop?

Topshop’s Considered Collection is key to their sustainable agenda. Created in 2018 with the ambition to bring sustainable materials and circular thinking into the brand, it truly is a breath of fresh air. 

Considered products must contain at least 50% organic cotton, 50% sustainable viscose (lyocell) or 20% recycled material (polyester or cotton).

The aim of this range is not just to promote sustainable fabrics, it is designed to challenge designers within Topshop to think differently, to consider alternatives before conventional materials, and to encourage shoppers to expect more. 

The ultimate vision is that the Considered Collection will help usher in a new era for sustainable fashion, one day replacing all conventional materials with sustainable alternatives at Topshop. 

This collection is therefore just the start of something much greater, part of an ambitious plan to transition away from unsustainable materials and one that they will hopefully achieve. 

But with no clear timelines, the real question is when. 

topshop conscious collection sustainable

Topshop's sustainable Considered Collection: product range

It is great to see that Topshop provides a lot of alternatives for staples like jeans. By using organics rather than conventional cotton, Topshop can help reduce the 10,000 litres of water required to make just 1 pair of jeans whilst completely eliminating all chemicals required in the manufacturing processes.

Topshop’s Considered Collection is wide ranging, offering conscious alternatives for everything from jackets and shirts, to bikinis and even vegan shoes. 

It certainly is a start, but it’s important to realise that much more needs to be done and soon before we can consider this more than a small collection of sustainably labelled alternatives. 

Topshop’s Considered Collection: an honest review

It is tempting to see Topshop's sustainable collection with products labelled ‘Considered’ on their website and be convinced that they are automatically good for the planet. 

Their website states, “We recognise sustainability as a pressing concern, and it is for this reason that we strive to do everything we can for the people we care about, the products we create and the planet we live on.”

The truth sadly remains a little less convincing. 

Far from doing everything in their power to change, it's difficult to view many of the products in their Considered Collection as a significant leap towards a sustainable future.

Product pages lack any detail describing how that product is made, what savings have been realised and exactly how the materials used are better for the environment. It’s often not even clear what percentage of sustainable material the garment is made from.

Unfortunately the shopper is left knowing very little about how the product they are viewing actually is beneficial to the environment beyond loose sweeping statements. 

And why does the brand only require their sustainable range to be just 50% organic or 20% recycled? Why not produce tops that are only 100% organic cotton? Where 20% recycled material has been used, what about the other 80%? Has there been any consideration for these materials? 

Unfortunately we are left with more questions than answers.


How can Topshop improve their Considered Collection? 

Product pages should state exactly how much sustainable content is in each garment, where these products have been made, how they have been made, as well as the benefits compared to non-sustainable alternatives. 

Consumers should be left feeling confident that the materials used are sustainable, manufacturing processes are clean and the workers involved are treated fairly.

Stats such as the amount of waste heading to landfill or CO2 saved for each top bought from the Considered Collection would reinforce and inspire the right choices.

This information ideally would be visible on the product page, or through links to alternative pages which provide a detailed breakdown of the product journey. 

This would ensure buyers fully understand the true impact of their purchases.

Is Topshop fast fashion?

Despite a growing collection of Considered products, the vast majority of Topshop’s range is still fast fashion and not sustainable. Likewise, Topman is also fast fashion at its core.

Topshop’s business model is based on selling low quality cheap clothes that are designed to be on trend for just one season, rather than timeless classics made from high quality materials which last for years. Without changing this, Topshop will always be inherently unsustainable and profit from fast fashion at the expense of the environment. 

It is certainly true that a giant like Topshop can’t pivot overnight, however transitioning the basics such as T-shirts to organic cotton (and 100% organic ideally) is a relatively easy step that should be taken sooner rather than later. 

It’s easy to be critical of Topshop’s Considered Collection, but it’s also important to remember that this is a start for the fast fashion giant, one that certainly doesn’t have a long history of sustainability. 

How is Topshop becoming more eco friendly? 

Attitudes do seem to be changing when it comes to sustainability in Topshop. Beyond using raw materials in sustainable ranges, eco friendly packaging, and increasing the efficiency of their stores, Topshop is trying to change the attitudes of employees to help create a more sustainable future. 

Topshop has a fashion footprint team whose purpose is to help employees create more sustainable and eco friendly products. 

The fashion footprint team suggests which materials, trims, processes and certifications designers should look out for when creating new pieces. Their aim is to help identify the highest impact materials and develop more sustainable alternatives. 

Sustainable Fibre Toolkit training is then delivered to product teams, and updated to ensure it is aligned with latest sustainable developments. For example, new innovations in sustainable fibres, circularity principles and the impacts of microfiber pollution. 

From this point on, Topshop’s sustainability and ethics will be explored through the Arcadia Group’s guidelines on this topic, Topshop’s parent company. 

Where do Topshop get their materials? 

Topshop’s materials come from 47 countries across the globe, however the majority of goods are manufactured in China, Turkey, Vietnam, India and Romania.

20 suppliers provide over half of goods sold in store, however in total Topshop have 663 suppliers who in turn work with 975 factories. A full factory list can be found here

Unfortunately, Topshop isn't able to trace exactly where all of the raw materials come from used to make their clothes. Currently they have traced 95% of tier 1 suppliers, however when it comes to understanding who grows the raw materials, this figure is much lower.

Until Topshop knows exactly where their raw materials are coming from, they will be unable to calculate the full environmental impact of their supply chain and the conditions of its workers.

Topshop's sustainable eco friendly materials

When creating their sustainable ranges, Topshop only selects materials where they are able to ensure that the fibres used are authentic and can be traced back to their source.  

To do this, they look for third party certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard and Global Recycled Standard, which are independently verified as a certain percentage of organic or recycled content. 

Using third parties certifications to verify the content used helps provide assurance that the material has been made through safe and sustainable methods.

Topshop’s impressive eco friendly details

It is nice to see a Goliath like Topshop paying attention to some of the smaller details. 

A great example is how the brand is working to ensure that even the care labels of the considered collection are made from 100% recycled polyester, reducing the need for virgin materials. 

Now granted, there is a long way that the brand still has to go before it can be truly classified as a sustainable clothing brand, but points like this give a lot of hope for the future and for sustainable fashion. 

Topshop’s eco friendly clothing care guide

Another amazing detail is Topshop’s clothing care guide which explains the best ways to look after your clothes. This is done primarily with the environment in mind, offering tips and advice on how to best care for your clothes so that they last longer. 

Here Topshop really goes above and beyond, sparing none of the details by suggesting things like using liquid detergents rather than powders and not under filling your machines as ways to reduce the amount of microplastics released when using your washing machine.

Reuse, Reduce, Recycle - Topshop's in store circularity and take back schemes

When considering waste in the fashion industry, Topshop is not front of mind. Yet there are signs that the retailer is trying to encourage you to think before you throw that old forgotten item collecting dust in your wardrobe. 

In 2018, Topshop teamed up with West London Waste and Recycling Board to install a clothes bank in their flagship store in Oxford Circus.

Through this collection point, they had collected an impressive 960kg of textiles by 2019 (nearly 4,000 garments). This was also part of a larger campaign to encourage the public and employees to donate unwanted clothing and prevent fabric waste from going to landfill. 

Amazingly, this recycling bank is still in operation today at Topshop’s Oxford Circus, a sign of its success.

Circularity and sustainable education

In addition to recycling old clothes, Topshop also trains their staff on circularity principles and how this can be incorporated into product development. Pre-consumer surplus ‘waste’ such as production samples are also now sold at sample sales, with proceeds going to charity. 

It is great to see the people at Topshop making the effort to educate both their staff and the public around matters of circularity and waste in the fashion industry. 

Circularity - just a publicity stunt? 

It’s perhaps not fair to compare Topshop with Pategonia, where only high quality items are produced with a promise to take back and mend if they break. 

Yet it must still be stressed that rarely are you reminded of circularity and the need to recycle your old clothes when walking into a Topshop store. It therefore raises the question, is this just a publicity stunt? Do they truly care about recycling your old clothes?

Whether or not Topshop truly is committed, it's still a refreshing sight to see that they are making efforts. Hopefully Topshop will one day role these measures out to other stores, and that retailers across the country will follow their lead. We can only hope.

Ways to improve Topshop’s clothes recycling scheme:

If Topshop truly were committed to recycling old clothes and have seen such success with their clothes bank in Oxford Circus, why not roll this out to other stores? 

Why not make it official and use Topshop as a home for recycling unwanted clothing? Why also continue to produce low quality garments that will likely end up in landfills within a year or two?

Topshop has made a big deal out of this clothes bank, yet it seems a little hollow when remembering the thousands of stores they could roll this out to.  

Topshop’s eco friendly packaging

One area where Topshop has made serious environmental progress is with their packaging. 

All online orders are now shipped in bags that contain up to 75% recycled plastic and can be recycled after use. 

Their in store carrier bags also contain up to 25% recycled content, soon to be 30%. The reason for this not being higher is that a higher recycled content would reduce the quality of the bag. 

It's good to see that these carrier bags are therefore built to be reused, a clear intention to make a quality bag for life. 

Topshop's 100% sustainable energy claims - exaggerating the truth 

With CO2 emissions climbing and sustainable energy an ever present reality, Topshop claims they are doing their bit for the environment. 

Since 2015, 100% of the energy used by Topshop in the UK has come from renewable sources. 

They have also started focusing on maximising the energy efficiency of their existing buildings through retrofitting programmes and changing the attitudes of staff. 

However, something doesn’t quite seem right when you read the small print... 

Topshop’s shops are NOT all powered by sustainable energy

On Topshop’s website, it states that ‘100% of the energy we have purchased… comes from renewable sources’. Yet there is one major flaw in this statement that isn’t obvious to the casual shopper - they only purchase the energy for a small handful of their stores. 

In fact, 80% of Topshop’s store footprint is managed by commercial landlords. This means that Topshop are effectively renting most of their shops, where energy will be soured and purchased by the landlord. As admitted on their website, the best Topshop can do is ‘influence’ the decisions of these landlords.

So, by saying that 100% of the energy they purchase is from renewable sources hides the fact that they only purchase energy for at most 20% of their stores. The other 80% could come from any source the landlord choses.

Not only this, there is not a single mention of the fact that the majority of energy needed to produce their clothes isn’t sourced in the UK, nor by Topshop. The lion share of power will be used to manufacture the products in the first place, and these overseas factories almost certainly don’t use sustainable energy.

It seems that although technically true, the energy that Topshop directly purchases does come from renewables, it is a very misleading statement.

Apparent energy savings - just a show? 

Every brand should be looking to make energy savings in the 21st century, and what Topshop are doing in their warehouses and some stores is nothing groundbreaking. Nevertheless, it is good that they are updating their portfolio. 

To start with, energy saving measures have been rolled out successfully across stores in Leicester and Trafford. Distribution centres at Leeds and Milton Keynes have also been retrofitted with LEDs, reducing energy consumption by just under 40%.

What seems hard to understand is why, if these measures were so successful, hasn’t this been rolled out across their entire portfolio of stores and warehouses? 

If they are truly proud of their energy saving at updated facilities in Trafford and Leicester, that leaves some 2500 stores across the Arcadia Group that still need updating (we are relying on data gathered from the Arcadia Group, so assume that they need to update their whole portfolio of brand stores rather than just Topshop).

In addition to not telling the complete truth, they only managed to lower energy consumption by 4% across 2017-18 despite these efforts. 

What makes matters worse, the website then freely admits that part of these energy savings are due to store closures rather than energy reduction measures. 

So far, rather uninspiring from an energy savings front. 

Other methods to reduce energy in store

Topshop are trying to go a little further than just retrofitting, implementing Building Management Systems (BMS) and behaviour change initiatives across stores.

You are forgiven for not knowing what BMS means. If you read into the details, you’ll find that it is a way to optimise energy usage by supplying only what each store needs to operate efficiently. This tech has allowed them to achieve energy savings of £195,000 per year.

So, due to the success of BMS they are rolling it out to a grand total of 20 more stores… again, this is from a portfolio of 2,500 stores. It doesn’t take much to make this sound a little pathetic. 

Topshop’s ‘Cut the Kilowatt’ campaign

Arcadia Group have also rolled out a campaign designed to reduce energy consumption called ‘Cut the Kilowatt’. Store operators are effectively provided a checklist of back of house equipment that can be switched off when not in use. Stores are also given a monthly energy report that helps identify opportunities to increase efficiencies. 

In a rare acknowledgement of the actual energy saving benefits of this campaign (rather than purely talking about cost savings), Arcadia Group state that this has reduced their energy demand by 1,186,731kWh. 

1,186,731kWh, sounds huge right? To help you make sense of this number we have converted it into something that is a little more clear (ideally this would be done by Topshop to make it comprehensible to the reader). It’s the equivalent to the energy required to power just under 300 average UK homes for a year, no trivial amount. 

For this, we can only but applaud their efforts. 

Uninspiring language of energy savings

It’s easy to overlook the way things are phrased, but often these details tell you more about a brand's true commitment to sustainability than many of the hard facts. With Topshop, the wording is all too telling.

Beyond the key headline pages on Topshop’s website, where sustainability is introduced with emotive and inspiring language, the true commitment of the brand comes into question. 

Take the energy pages as a great example. Here we are told about saving measures with language lacking any real conviction, seemingly more focused on cost cutting measures and business efficiencies than actually making adjustments to help the planet. Often the terminology is difficult to understand and facts are not presented in a transparent or comprehensible manner. 

Not only this, at the point of writing the energy data reported on their website is over 2 years old. This may sound trivial, but no one can claim to be focused on sustainability and not keep an up to date log which is easily accessible to the public.

Reading between the lines, the environment takes a backseat as profit and cost cutting is prioritised. 

Environmentally Friendly Employee Engagement

In a bid to encourage employees to be more sustainable and ethical in their day to day roles, Arcadia held a ‘Save the Planet Month’which featured guest speakers, competitions, and workshops aimed at providing employees with the tools and knowledge to improve their own environmental impact. 

This included making a ’Pledge for the planet’, whereby employees were encouraged to make a personal pledge promising to cut their individual impact.

It is great to see the company promoting sustainability internally, however it would be good to know what sort of engagement this campaign received. 

Sadly the engagement it generated with employees is questionable. A separate article proudly states that 143 retail employees recorded a personal pledge to do something positive for the planet. 

This is a little underwhelming considering the Arcadia Group has a whopping 22,000 employees. If they attempted to promote this ‘Pledge for the Planet’ to every employee, that means a embarrassing 0.65% of employees actually made a promise. 

Logistics and shipping efficiencies

Topshop’s shipping and logistics must be considered as part of the wider Arcadia Group. Together, it handles a staggering 115 million items over the course of a trading year, with products shipped to 47 countries through a combination of road, sea and air.  

Steps have been taken to reduce the impact of this colossal network. CO2 from Arcadia owned distribution vehicles reduced by 7% in the most recent financial year. 

Again, the majority of improvements have been achieved by increasing the efficiency of existing routes rather than implementing an innovative sustainable policy. For example, better journey planning means that now the average vehicle loading capacity is at 90%, reducing the distance goods are transported by 7% and fuel consumption by 4%. 

Topshop has also been working alongside forwarding partners and managed to decrease the weight of goods shipped by air by 17% last year. 

Drivers are also being trained to be more fuel efficient, whilst in 2019 the fleet was upgraded to bring it in line with Euro 6 emissions standards. 

A critical review of Arcadia Group’s logistics

It is hard to read these details without feeling underwhelmed by their ambition. Rather than reducing emissions, cost cutting again seems to be the most important part of their plan. 

In fact, virtually nothing is said that is even remotely ambitious when it comes to transportation, such as a transition to a carbon neutral network. Even brands like ASOS are attempting to convert some of their online order delivery vehicles to electric. 

When reading further, it becomes even less convincing. 

With delivery vehicles Topshop owns shipping only locally, international facilitators transport a large portion of packages sent. Yet we know virtually nothing about the emissions of these partners beyond a loose statement that they are working closely with them to understand their environmental impact. 

Feeling uninspired, we are left hoping that Arcadia Group will soon track their full logistics network and start taking more ambitious steps towards a carbon neutral future. 

How can Topshop improve the sustainability of their logistics?

It would be useful to know a few more of the details. A good place to start would be discussing the success of various programmes, such as whether teaching drivers to be more efficient has actually made any difference. 

This would be fairly easy to track, calculating fuel usage before and after the training sessions. Yet no mention of this is made, and we are left questioning whether this has had any impact at all. 

Ambitious and clear targets should also be set for a specific date in the future, such as shipping all products through carbon neutral carriers by 2025.

Is Topshop environmentally friendly? CO2 emissions 

Although improvements have been made, Topshop cannot be considered environmentally friendly. Carbon emissions have reduced across the Group by 19% from 2016/17 to 2017/18, but again we are left guessing how this was achieved. What is clear is that a large percentage of these savings have come either through efficiencies or store closures. 

With fewer stores, less energy is required, which ultimately questions the true success of this reduction. 

More importantly, there is no mention of CO2 produced in the manufacturing processes, undoubtedly where the bulk of emissions are released.

Until Topshop assesses the impact of their clothes at the locations where they are made, all attempts to truly consider the impact of their products will be partial at best. 

Topshop’s promises to reduce emissions and become more environmentally friendly

Topshop, through the Arcadia Group, have signed up to SCAP, WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020. So far, over 88 organisations have made this commitment, which accounts for 65% of the clothes sold in the UK by volume and 54% by sales.  

SCAP sets audacious goals, using collective action to minimise the environmental impact of our clothes. Starting from a baseline year of 2012, signatories have committed to reducing their carbon footprint, water footprint and waste to landfill all by 15%, and reducing waste arising over the product life cycle by 3.5%. 

It has proven to be a highly successful collaboration, and together the signatories are on track to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 1,200,000 tonnes of CO2 per each year, the equivalent of emissions from nearly 250,000 cars

So although Topshop doesn't provide any details on CO2 reduction or specifics around how they are becoming more environmentally friendly, we have to trust that as a signatory they have made some progress towards this. 

Water and Waste: Sustainable improvement needed

Waste and water consumption is a hot topic when it comes to sustainable fashion, yet details are only provided about their UK consumption. 

Since 2015, The Arcadia Group has been working closely with a specialist water consultancy to better understand their water consumption and identify opportunities to reduce it. By detecting and preventing leaks in their facilities, they have saved 21,428 litres of water from 2017-18, the equivalent to 8 olympic sized swimming pools. 

Yet unfortunately the reality is a little less clear than what Topshop's website would have us believe. When considering overseas production, Topshop falls short on water reduction by collecting water data for less than 25% of their water intensive facilities

Is Topshop eco friendly and sustainable?

Is Topshop eco friendly and sustainable? Well, the short answer is no. 

Topshop doesn’t once mention a detailed carbon agenda, nor set any clear goals describing how they will become more eco friendly and sustainable. Without a clear target, one which would ideally be carbon negative by 2050 or earlier, it is hard to feel assured that Topshop is truly committed to a sustainable and eco friendly future.

Topshop’s website is uninspiring, unmotivated, and ignores large portions of their overseas business where the majority of pollution is produced. It’s language seems to report more on efficiencies and cost saving benefits than true sustainable innovation. 

It could even be argued that they report on sustainability, not because they want, but because they have to in order to appear like they are doing the right thing in the 21st century. 

Is Topshop greenwashing?

It is tempting to say yes, Topshop is Greenwashing. What’s clear is that sustainability is not a top priority for Topshop and that the work done seems to suggest they are jumping onto the trend of sustainable fashion. 

However, before we completely disregard the work done by Topshop, it is important to remember that they are bringing the ideas of sustainability and ethics to the masses and potentially changing the buying habits of a new generation by introducing them to affordable considered fashion.

Sustainable fast fashion giants may sadly remain a thing of the future for now, but raising awareness is a major step on our journey towards a sustainable fashion future.

To read more on Topshop's ethics, how they are treating workers in their supply chain, and if they are using sweatshops, read our next article which asks if Topshop is an ethical brand in 2020

Alternatively, we have reviewed Topshop's attitude towards animal welfare in our article which answers whether Topshop is cruelty free

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