Please note: This article was originally written in Dutch by Stéphanie Verzelen for the Nina section of the Belgian newspaper HLN.

"Does the maker of this jumper get paid decently?" Or, "How much water does it take to make this T-shirt?" To all customers' questions about low-priced clothes, clothing brand Zeeman now answers. At sustainability platform COSH! they are sceptical about the new campaign: transparency is nice, but this can also be misleading.

Sustainability is a hot topic in the clothing industry. And it is a good thing because fast fashion is still in the top five of the world's biggest polluters. So more and more major fashion brands want to show that they are conscious of this. The problem? Mostly, those companies do 'greenwashing': they make some minimal efforts, smear them widely in their advertisements, but continue their polluting practices.

Zeeman clearly wants to change its approach. The bargain-priced fashion brand is not boasting another sustainable intervention. Instead, it is going all out with honesty, in its own words. The website now lists several explicit questions customers ask about the low prices. If your question still needs to be among them, you can send it in, and Zeeman will provide you with an answer.

"How can a T-shirt be so cheap?" "Aren't you contributing very hard to overconsumption?" And, "Isn't it very environmentally unfriendly to have a shirt made so far away?" These are three of the 13 questions Zeeman has already answered on their website.

And in doing so, Zeeman is, indeed, surprisingly transparent. "Workers at our suppliers are paid the minimum wage, but in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the wage is not enough to live on," they write, for example. They also admit that one cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water. "That is why we more often choose materials that require less, such as organic cotton."

"It surprises us that Zeeman dares to go so big with this campaign," says Niki de Schryver. She founded COSH!, the sustainability platform that collects transparent info on clothing brands for consumers. "We know from Zeeman that they take adequate steps, but they still need to do better to claim they're doing so well".

"Many people just think, 'Oh, Zeeman is sustainable now too.' And only that sticks"

Niki has noticed this trend in the fashion industry for some time. "Premature communication is what we call it. When a company is already boasting about the steps it wants to take, even before the results are there. Very discerning consumers will avoid being caught by that; but many others think: 'Oh, Zeeman is sustainable now too.' And that is the only thing they’ll remember."

After all, their communication is undoubtedly premature. Annelies of COSH! examined the claims Zeeman made in their new campaign. "They are currently working towards a living wage in five factories, they write. And, of course, they want to upscale that. Thankfully, because they actually work with as many as 407 facilities, and they do not communicate that proportion in this campaign."

De Schryver: "They are also working to reduce child labour, and indeed, child labour has decreased already in the assembly plants. But we know it doesn't disappear: it just gets hidden deeper in the supply chain. For instance, Zeeman does not communicate about their yarn manufacturers: that requires very slim hands."

"They work with 'Better Cotton' in 53.2% of their clothes. But, in doing so, they neglect that 2 kilos of chemicals are still used in that"

The organic cotton that Zeeman wants to work with is also not so kosher. De Schryver: "Generally, that just consumes more water; less groundwater but more rainwater. Ultimately, only 3.6% of all their cotton is really organic, if we look at figures from 2021."

"Additionally, they also work with 'Better Cotton' in 53.2% of their clothes, which is cotton that uses 1 kilo less of chemicals per kilo of cotton. In doing so, they neglect that 2 kilos of chemicals are still used. Plus, including only 10% 'Better Cotton' in one garment is enough to get that label."

This is the danger in what Zeeman does. "Soon everyone will think, 'Shein's okay too, right?'"

It's not entirely black and white, of course. Zeeman does take reasonable steps, says Niki de Schryver. They score 32 out of 100 on the COSH! Index for sustainability; by comparison, Shein scores 2 out of 100. Thanks to Zeeman, those with a small wallet can still buy relatively high-quality and timeless basics. Nonetheless, the hard truth is that clothes this cheap can never really be fully ecologically and ethically correct.

"You must blunder somewhere to sell something for 3.50 euros. Plenty of people along the chain, such as cotton farmers, may still be disadvantaged, even if the end producers earn a fair wage. Plus, 3.50 euros don't encourage consumers to cherish the garment for a long time."

"It’s good that Zeeman encourages us to question cheap clothing. But their answers could be more specific and reassuring"

Therein lies the main danger: Zeeman will soon make us believe that all cheap clothes can be sustainable. "They say: 'Our shirt costs 3.50, but we can do it ecologically and ethically, you know!' It also doesn't help that Zeeman won the 'ABN Amro Sustainable Retailer of the Year' award last year. Sad, because people at home will think, 'Well, then an H&M or a Shein will be okay too, surely?' That's what I'm afraid of."

"It's good that Zeeman encourages us to question cheap clothes. But the answers they give are too vague and not reassuring. How they operate now is really not okay yet. And they don't tell us that," says de Schryver.

Please note: This article was originally written in Dutch by Stéphanie Verzelen for the Nina section of the Belgian newspaper HLN.