Last September, Walmart made steps toward sustainability with its Free Assembly fashion line. The affordable line is made up of modern, long-lasting pieces that can be freely mixed and “assembled.” According to Walmart’s marketing emails, the clothes are also “produced in facilities that aim to protect both the environment and the workers.”
This eco-friendly pitch appeals to the recent surge of consumer interest in sustainability—especially in younger generations. According to a new poll from Kearney Management Consultants, 48 percent of consumers have been more environmentally conscious since COVID-19. The same poll shows 78 percent think companies could better promote sustainable choices. However, is the Free Assembly line really as eco-friendly as it seems? Let’s dive in and find out.
Walmart Sustainable Clothing
Making clothing is costly, both to consumers and to everyone else involved in the production process. Problems such as workers’ exploitation, child labor, and animal cruelty are rampant in the fashion industry. Additionally, fast fashion’s precipitous rise in the world means that 85 percent of unwanted clothes end up in landfills or incinerators. The Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius has not been met by most countries. Because we can’t rely on others to do the work, it’s more important than ever to commit ourselves to sustainability as consumers and support the companies taking steps in the right direction.
Cue in Walmart. When Walmart first launched its Free Assembly line last year, it was reported that the denim is made “in LEED and Fair Trade Certified facilities that aim to protect both the environment and the workers.” Exciting, right? Unfortunately, the website doesn’t go into detail on the line’s sustainability efforts. There are only small bullet points about the denim, saying it has a low water impact (and is “washed using techniques that encourage reduced water usage”), is LEED certified (aka produced in facilities that aim to protect the environment), and made from “mostly organic cotton.”
The product descriptions and press release are vague, too. The only thing related to sustainability in the release was the “organic selvedge denim.” But being organic isn’t the same as being sustainable. While organic farming practices do tend to be more sustainable, the two aren’t identical. For example, many “organic” foods at the supermarket are from the same multinational companies like General Mills, Coca-Cola, Perdue, and Kellogg. While most of us think of idyllic pastoral fields when we hear the word “organic,” that just isn’t 100 percent true.
So are Walmart’s Free Assembly clothes sustainable? From the information found on Walmart’s website, there are small details about how this line is created with more care than others from the company. With that being said, the website itself doesn’t translate what “aim[ing] to protect both the environment and the workers” means in terms of policies or standards. And the Walmart Global Ethics Office doesn’t clarify much either.
It’s great that Walmart has affirmed its commitment to sustainability and is on the right path. And that its making sustainable clothing more affordable and accessible: Denim made at LEED certified factories with mostly organic cotton and a low water impact is a whole lot better than similarly-priced denim from other big companies.
But as consumers, just remember: Never be afraid to voice your concerns and ask for the fine details.