Fashion, Opinion

The H&M Problem

H&M have received considerable praise in the media this week about their sustainability efforts, but is this real progress or are they just pulling the (100% certified, responsibly-sourced) wool over our eyes?

With the release of their ‘2014 Conscious Action Sustainability Report’, the launch of their latest Conscious Collection, and being recognized as one of the world’s most ethical companies by independent body Ethisphere, fast fashion retailer H&M is once again being lauded as a leader in sustainable fashion.

Yet with a planned 400 new stores opening in 2015 (to add to their existing 3500 stores worldwide), their aggressive sales growth leads to an equally aggressive increase in manufacturing, which means more natural resources used, more strain on factories and their workers, and more apparel ending up as landfill. It begs the question: can a business built on the unsustainable model of fast fashion ever really be sustainable?

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A screenshot from H&M’s sustainability report


One of H&M’s core strategies is to compete on price. Given that they are are not suddenly going to stop producing $15 jeans, is it not better that they make steps towards improved business practices? Or do these efforts amount to little more than green-washing; distracting us from the real problem of thoughtless overconsumption of fast fashion.

There is no doubt that there are admirable things to come from this report. H&M’s in-store recycling program is one of the largest in the world and last year saw 13 000 tons of clothing collected for re-use. While they have only just begun re-working these into new styles (they released their first pieces using 20% recycled cotton last year), they have entered into a partnership with Kering and UK-based textile technology company Worn Again to develop new fabric-recycling techniques.

A less glamorous but arguably more significant step is H&M’s decision to publish some of their first fabric and yarn suppliers-to-their-suppliers in their factory list in an effort to provide greater transparency in the supply chain. This will hopefully pressure other retailers to do the same and is a significant step in demystifying the apparel manufacturing process. However, they admit that they don’t have direct relationships with fabric and yarn mills, which limits their influence.

One of the most productive outcomes of H&M’s sustainability report and its subsequent media coverage is that it will put pressure on other retailers. H&M are proudly making sustainability part of the conversation and other brands must turn their attention to such matters as similar questions should and will be asked of them. Imagine a world where all fashion brands (fast, luxury, middle-market, whatever) held press events to celebrate their achievements in sustainability, rather than just their achievement of profits or their latest designer collaboration. Their participation also helps to change the perception of sustainable fashion as uncool, unattainable and overly expensive. It allows people who perhaps can’t afford high-end sustainable brands such as Stella McCartney or Edun to consider ethical factors before purchasing.

But take a step back and the picture doesn’t look so pristine. Despite H&M’s conspicuous achievements, much of the problem of the unsustainable fashion industry boils down to this simple truth: we are buying too much.

This makes the unveiling of their Conscious Collection, fronted by actress and sustainable fashion spokeswoman Olivia Wilde, problematic, since H&M seemingly have not replaced previous production with this new line. They have simply added a “conscious” range to their existing stock. It does not appear that they have decreased their total production, and are still contributing to the main problem of over-production inherent in fast fashion.

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Olivia Wilde fronts H&M’s latest Conscious Collection


They proudly state they are the number one user of organic cotton in the world, yet 78.3% of cotton that they currently use is not organic. Furthermore, only 14% of their total materials usage is considered sustainable. Their report states that by 2020 they aim to be using 100% organic cotton, and while this is a worthy goal, it is over-ordering and high demand that leads to cracks in organic practices. They have not disclosed any plans as to how they will support the organic cotton industry to fulfill this sharp increase, so it remains to be seen whether this goal will be achieved.

Furthermore, that H&M are the largest users of organic cotton, but that it only accounts for 21.2% of their total cotton use points more to the obscene amount of clothes they produce, rather than sustainable manufacturing. The enormous amount of cotton (organic or otherwise) that is used to make cheap clothes is undoubtedly a drain on natural resources and encourages overconsumption.

The conditions within their factories are another area of concern. As H&M make clear, they do not own their own factories, but work with partners to influence fair living wage, safe working conditions and democratically elected workplace representation. One of their goals, as stated in the report, is that “by 2018, all of H&M’s strategic suppliers should have improved pay structures for a living wage in place.” Which means for the next three years (at best), some workers in H&M approved factories will not be receiving a living wage. How can any business that admits this fact be considered one of the world’s most ethical brands?

In order for meaningful change to occur in the fashion industry, it must be large and influential brands like H&M leading the charge. With their immense buying power and global sales footprint, they have the influence to make a real difference in the types of fabrics we wear and the way clothes are made. But when we continue to gush over every one of their sustainable achievements, without critically examining their place in a wider system of unsustainable fashion consumption, do we risk obscuring the real problem? Are we missing the point?

Read the full report here.


One thought on “The H&M Problem

  1. Pingback: The H&M Problem | Slave Label

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