Let’s face it, you know that H&M is not sustainable or ethical. You could almost stop reading now.
But before you do stop reading, a lot is being done behind the scenes to make H&M eco friendly.
So, does this really make H&M sustainable or ethical today? If not, why is H&M not eco friendly yet?
Well, for starters H&M’s entire business model is based on fast fashion, a system which promotes waste and excess. But you already know this.
So how about the repeated ethical scandals that make H&M’s commitment to improving workers conditions sound hollow.
OK, so there are a number of reasons why H&M is not sustainable or ethical.
Yes I admit, H&M has their faults. I am still going to risk saying that sustainable fashion needs H&M to achieve a truly circular future.
Tempted to read more?
Unfortunately it might be a stretch to say that H&M is actually sustainable today, but they are certainly on track to becoming more sustainable.
H&M have never been scared to make bold promises when it comes to sustainability, setting the bar high for other fast fashion retailers.
The first ambitious milestone is to use a minimum of 30% recycled materials in all products by 2025. Commitments have also been made to use fabric dyes that save up to 95% water and are less toxic versus conventional dyes.
Given another 5 years, H&M are targeting 100% sustainable or recycled materials in all clothing lines by 2030.
These are stepping stones to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming climate positive throughout their supply chain by 2040.
According to their Global Sustainability Manager Pascal Brun,
“Our vision is to lead the change towards circular and climate positive fashion while being a fair and equal company… We want to close the loop in fashion. So for me, the sustainable fashion future is better with H&M in it than without.
I know what you are thinking, sounds like another case of fast fashion greenwashing the truth!
Maybe... but with over 5,000 stores in 74 countries, the truth is that we need brands like H&M to start really making a difference.
You’re likely wondering,is HM really eco friendly?Let’s look at the ways that H&M are actually starting to help the environment.
Key to becoming eco-friendly is the materials they use in their clothes. With their first Conscious Collection dating back to 2010, they have shown that they are unafraid to experiment and do things differently.
A lot of focus has been spent creating new and innovative fabrics made from recycled waste materials. These include exotic names like Hemp Biofibre™ made from oilseed hemp crop waste, Naia™ Renew, a recycled cellulosic fibre, and even a vegan leather made from waste grapes called Vegea™.
H&M is also the first retailer to use Re:Newcell (Circulose), arguably one of the most sustainable and promising developments in fashion. It takes old natural fabrics such as your old cotton shirts and breaks them down into a pulp, from which threads are made and new materials can be woven.
Beyond this, H&M are also finding new ways to sustainable treat fabrics. Plant based pigments, closed loop printing and biotechnology are all methods H&M are exploring to create vibrant clothes with a lower impact on the environment.
If you’ve read the above, you might be thinking that H&M clothes are sustainable. Sadly this is not quite true.
Sales of these new sustainable fabrics are still small compared to their standard fashion lines. At their core, H&M’s business model still relies on low quality clothes that follow short lived trends. This is why H&M is still a fast fashion retailer.
You may be tempted to see their sustainable fabrics as a sideshow distraction. Here I want to disagree.
Unless big brands are willing to invest and innovate, no new developments will emerge.
What’s more, H&M certainly haven’t taken their eyes off the prize. In 2019 H&M proudly announced that 57% of materials were sourced in a more sustainable way. Their definition of sustainable is vague. Yet there has been real progress to making sustainable clothes today.
This includes 95% of their cotton which was sourced from recycled cotton, organic cotton or through the Better Cotton Initiative. That makes H&M the largest buyer of Preferred cotton in the world.
Ultimately though, one of the most important things that the brand is doing is raising awareness for the need to dress sustainably. By being one of the first manufacturers to start using sustainable materials back in 2010, they have set a high bar that other fast fashion retailers will be compared to.
Sounds good right? H&M is becoming more eco friendly.
Before you run out and buy from your nearest H&M, there are a few things you should know. After all, it’s always easy to make big promises and underdeliver.
Having read the above, you might be tempted to say that yes, H&M are actually sustainable today. There’s a lot more that H&M are doing to be sustainable.
H&M have developed a new technology that recycles old clothes, a development they call their Green Machine. This is a new way to process and recycle old textiles into new material. As a new tech, it has unfortunately not yet been widely adopted, but it holds a lot of promise for closing the loop in fashion.
One thing that bugs me from their website’s description of their green machine is the clear disgust that H&M have for textile waste. Now I may be stating the obvious, but as the second largest fashion brand in the world, one that has grown through cheap, fast fashion, surely a good place to focus would be building clothes that last for decades, not just a season.
You’ll no doubt be familiar with the terrifying facts that surround the fashion industry. Knowing that a garbage truck full of clothes is burned or landfilled around the globe every second, fast fashion brands have to do more to stop this.
Well, H&M’s are aware of this problem and are trying to do something about it.
H&M were the first fast fashion brand to introduce recycling schemes in-store to encourage shoppers to donate and recycle old clothes.
Since the scheme’s launch in 2013, it has been the biggest in-store collection initiative of its kind. In 2019, H&M collected an impressive 29,005 tonnes of textiles, the equivalent to 145 million T-shirts. Clearly this is helping protect the environment and something all fast fashion brands should be doing.
From reading this, you might think that H&M are actually eco-friendly. Sadly things are often not quite what they seem.
A third party company called I:Collect is responsible for recycling donated clothes. Unhelpfully, H&M doesn’t provide details on how much of the clothes they collect are actually recycled and reused. It turns out only around 35% of these clothes are actually recycled at all.
I am inclined to agree with Environmental Activist Elizabeth Cline who says this seems like a publicity stunt, an easy sustainability win. Why else would H&M give shoppers a £5 voucher for recycling in store? It’s to retain customers and persuade us to return more frequently. With this £5, we are more likely to buy new, low quality fast fashion clothes, overall creating more waste.
A sceptic might view H&M’s Conscious Collection as greenwashing.
Firstly, let’s start with the benefits. H&M conscious is developing new sustainable fabrics that end up in their regular clothing lines. For this you can only applaud.
To qualify as Conscious, clothes must contain a minimum of 50% sustainable fabrics, or 20% if recycled cotton.
Whilst this is positive progress and good for the environment, more needs to be done. The criteria for being considered conscious is vague - “sustainable” fabric is a very loose term. The brand also shows no evidence to prove that progress is being made to pay workers a fair wage, or how working conditions are improving. Ironic when the collection is called Conscious.
Many truly sustainable brands with much smaller budgets use 100% sustainable materials, so why should H&M not do the same. What about the other 50% non-sustainable portion of H&M’s clothes (or 80% where recycled cotton is used)?
We also have to remember that the vast majority of H&M’s clothes are still not environmentally friendly. As long as H&M remains a fast fashion brand, it seems wrong to believe their clothes are sustainable just yet.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. Researchers from the Stern Center for Sustainable Business show that products labelled as sustainable sell faster than those not labelled as sustainable.
There is no doubt that a key reason H&M are focusing on eco friendly initiatives is that they attract attention.
Sadly this point has been proven in Norway, where the Forbrukertilsynet (Norway’s Consumer Authority) is investigating H&M’s sustainability claims due to vague promises without evidence. They claim that H&M is misleading customers in order to increase the demand for goods sold.
Investments into a sustainable future
Still, there are other reasons to be positive.
In December 2020, H&M announced they would be investing $100 million into their Planet First programme. Understandably the brand is very proud of this, publicising it everywhere online. This is surely clear evidence H&M are doing a lot to become more sustainable.
Again this could be seen as misleading.
When put into context, H&M’s investments can seem less impressive, making it hard not to question their true dedication to becoming sustainable.
Whilst $100 million is being donated, the H&M Foundation is only donating $12 million, the remainder met by the Hong Kong Innovation Fund. Still sounds like a large amount, but when we compare this to their operating profits in 2019 alone, H&M earned £1,814 million. This is operating profits, not total turnover! Makes that $12 million sounds a little less generous.
We do like to see that they are bringing heads together to help create new solutions to the problems that the fashion industry faces. This has resulted in sustainable breakthroughs that the industry needs.
A good example is H&M’s Looop. Looop is the world’s first in-store recycling system which turns old garments into new ones. By shredding down old fabrics, new clothes can be created without needing dye or water.
In October 2020 this was added to H&M’s flagship store in Sweden. It’s far from becoming adopted on an industrial scale, but the innovation holds a lot of promise.
Let’s remake and create a better fashion future. Introducing @looop — the world’s first in-store recycling system turning old garments into new. Never again will your unwanted clothes be seen as waste. From now on, they are a resource. #jointherecyclingrevolution #HM pic.twitter.com/ytZYH0wTpN— H&M (@hm) October 12, 2020
Is H&M ethical?
It may sound like H&M are turning a corner. With a large conscious collection, and clear concern for garment workers in their sustainability report, you would be forgiven for thinking the brand is ethical.
As one of the employers of garment workers caught in the disaster of Rana Plaza in 2013, H&M were quick to join other major brands in signing the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord. They also promised to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018.
What’s more, H&M scored a very respectable 68 in the Fashion Transparency Index for 2021, placing them second in the overall rankings. So, it seems like H&M has made real progress towards becoming an ethical brand.
Sadly the truth is not quite as straightforward as it first seems. Their sustainability and ethics section of their website gives almost no evidence of actual progress for those working in garment factories.
Almost none of H&M’s supply chain is certified by labour standards that protect workers’ health and safety, living wages and other basic rights. The truth is that improved transparency does not equal improved labour rights or wages.
Each year, new scandals arise that make you question whether H&M are really an ethical business. A good example is their pledge to pay fair wages by 2018, a simple promise they self admitted to having missed.
Conveniently, after they missed this target they seemed to forget about it. When promises like this can be ignored or forgotten if they are inconvenient, it makes you question their other ambitious targets - which we know there are many.
Evidence was also found in 2018 by the Global Labour Justice that female garment workers had been abused in a number of H&M’s factories. This wasn’t just a one time occurrence, over 540 reports of abuse have been noted in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka due to pressure for quick turnarounds and low overheads.
This is surely just an issue of the past? H&M have improved, right?
Sadly in 2021 similar cases continued to be recorded in H&M’s factories, such as Indian factory Natchi Apparel. Here 25 women have come forward to report harassment following the death of a 21 year old at the hands of her supervisor.
With scandals like this in recent memory, it seems only a matter of time until the next one will reach the news. Continued supply issues, Covid-19, and increasing pressure for low costs and quick turnaround times makes you worry about those most vulnerable through H&M’s supply chain.
H&M does show promise when it comes to supporting animal cruelty prevention.
H&M’s Animal Welfare Policy states that they only use animal based materials from farms with good animal care.
To help prevent animal cruelty, some of the animal sources can be traced to the site of origin. For example, H&M ensures they use wool from non-mulesed sheep, only uses responsibly sourced down, and have banned fur, angora, and exotic animal skins throughout all their product lines.
Like their sustainability goals, they have set themselves milestones that they are aiming to hit. By 2025 they want to have reached full traceability and only source animal products from farms with proven positive animal welfare.
They will also use only wool from farms certified by the Responsible Wool Standard by 2025.
It’s good that H&M see this as a priority, and let’s hope they stick to these objectives.
Whilst progress has been made, it’s clear H&M are not sustainable. Here’s a short and simple list of reasons why:
Most sustainable influencers doubt whether fast fashion will ever be sustainable. Until the short hype cycles are replaced with long lasting timeless fashion, retailers like H&M will remain unsustainable.
Is H&M really sustainable and sustainable? Well, if you’ve read this far then you know that they aren’t. However, I am going to boldly state that we need H&M if we are to really see a sustainable future for fashion.
I started with a quote from Global Sustainability Manager Pascal Brun. He said that the future of sustainable fashion is better with H&M than without it. It’s a bold claim coming from a fast fashion giant that churns out tonnes of cheap fashion each day.
But I am inclined to agree with him.
Right now sustainable fashion is slowly being dragged to the attention of fast fashion giants by small independent brands. Yet small brands can’t do it alone.
Brands like Cariki don’t have the cash to invest in new tech. That’s why we need big retailers like H&M to pioneer new ideas and create a truly circular economy where there is no waste.
The reality is that fast fashion brands like H&M are here to stay. The majority of shoppers want affordable options. That’s why H&M are important to democratizing sustainable fashion and making it mainstream.
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