H&M has been very vocal about their sustainability efforts, but is the brand actually eco-friendly?
Boasting over 38 million followers on Instagram and more than $22 billion USD in sales last year, H&M has made quite a name for themselves. Chances are you have shopped at or at least heard of this Swedish clothing company, which is the second largest clothing company in the world. Aside from being a household name, H&M is known as a fast fashion brand, churning out new clothing and collections at lightning speed. In fact, H&M often designs, produces, and distributes new clothing in as little as two weeks’ time. Working to change this fast fashion narrative, the brand seems to be all about sustainability as of late.
H&M’s Sustainability Efforts
H&M is quite vocal about their sustainability efforts. The company has been releasing yearly sustainability reports since the early 2000s. Their 2021 report details their approach to sustainability and goals for circular and climate positive practices. But is H&M all talk?
One pillar of H&M’s sustainability efforts is their Conscious Collection. This clothing line within the brand is marketed as a sustainable fashion collection that uses eco-friendly materials. In its advertising materials, the brand states, “Our Conscious products contain at least 50% recycled materials, organic materials or TENCEL ™ Lyocell material- in fact many contain 100%.”
Hold onto your hats, because if you read that previous paragraph and thought “this sounds too good to be true,” then you are correct…
The Lawsuit Against H&M
Chelsea Commodore, a marketing student and H&M customer, filed an advertising lawsuit against the fast fashion giant in July 2022. Commodore alleges that H&M is guilty of greenwashing its products. Greenwashing is when a brand makes themselves or their product appear eco-friendly via false information or deceptive advertising. Commodore argues in the lawsuit that H&M “misrepresented the nature of its products, at the expense of consumers who pay a price premium in the belief that they are buying truly sustainable and environmentally friendly clothing.”
In this day and age, many of us are attempting to shop more sustainability and are more selective of the brands we bring business to. H&M, aware of this rising demographic of conscious shoppers, saw a business opportunity. Instead of creating a truly eco-friendly line, the brand used smoke and mirrors and marketing ploys to attract customers.
H&M Greenwashing Examples
H&M’s previously mentioned Conscious Collection reeks of greenwashing. One example of greenwashing marketing H&M engaged in is the sustainability scorecards placed on many of their products. These scorecards were designed to flag which H&M pieces are sustainable, and the cards shared facts about the materials used to create the garments. These green tags were meant to draw in eco-conscious shoppers. An investigation from Quartz, however, revealed the information on these sustainability scorecards was fictitious. One alarming find from this investigation is that one dress contained a label saying H&M used 20% less water than average when producing the garment, when in reality it took 20% more water to produce the dress! The scorecard told a straight up lie.
In the lawsuit, Commodore is also calling out H&M for not actually using sustainable materials for their Conscious Collection clothing. Many of the clothes from the Conscious Collection line are made from polyester, a synthetic material that is not biodegradable or recyclable. Polyester is also known to shed harmful microfibers.
Learn more about how to spot greenwashing in this My Green Closet video.
*It is important to note that H&M has pulled its Conscious Collection both in store and online, with the collection being completely removed from stores by the end of October 2022.
H&M’s Business Model
Another part of the problem lies in H&M’s business model. The brand’s low-cost, high-volume, trend-driven business model is not conducive to green business practices. H&M’s business model involves creating clothes cheaply and in high volumes, as is typical for fast fashion companies. Frequent and large-scale production of clothing is not sustainable or eco-friendly. Even if H&M’s Conscious Collection were eco-friendly, a few better choices among the brand’s estimated 550 million garments produced annually is not really sustainable at all.
Even the brand’s clothing donation initiative is problematic. H&M stores feature donation boxes where shoppers can recycle their old garments in exchange for a store coupon. The donated clothes are then sorted into three categories: Rewear, Reuse, and Recycle. Rewear clothes become secondhand clothing; Reuse clothes are turned into new products, such as cleaning rags; Recycle clothes are recycled into new textile fibers. This seems like a noble program, right? The fact is, however, this clothing recycling program promotes throwaway culture. Instead of investing in quality items that can be worn season after season, throwaway culture promotes constantly swapping out one’s wardrobe by throwing away/recycling old items and buying new replacements. The donation program rids shoppers of consumer guilt by convincing them that constantly buying new clothing is okay since they are donating old items. It is also worth noting that only 0.1% of clothing donated to programs like H&M’s actually gets recycled into new fibers.
H&M’s low-cost, high-volume business model also raises questions about the brand’s labor conditions and practices. On their website, H&M conveniently explains that they outsource production and therefore do not have control over worker salaries. The brand does, however, offer up a plan on how to increase wages for garment workers, including educating workers on their rights, monitoring wages, and engaging in collective bargaining. However, there is no proof that every employee receives a living wage. H&M has also faced criticism on the working conditions in factories where their clothing is produced. H&M has 42 suppliers in Myanmar, where there have been reports of wage theft and sexual harassment. Like H&M’s grand sustainability plans, there seems to be a lot of talk about improving working conditions, but not a lot of evidence of improvements occurring.
Is H&M Sustainable? The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that H&M is not a sustainable brand. Their sustainability efforts, while sounding good on paper, appear to be another sad case of greenwashed marketing. If the brand is serious about making a change, a new business model is needed for H&M to truly become an eco-friendly, sustainable company. For the time being, H&M will not be recognized as a sustainable company.