‘Conscious’ Fashion or ‘Conscious’ Greenwashing?
It is of course important for clothes to be made from more sustainable materials. However, no matter how organic the cotton is, unless social and environmental justice is enforced in each step of a products life cycle and there is transparency on who it is produced by and how the product is consumed and disposed of, it cannot be sustainable. Given that H&M provides no evidence that workers in their production cycle are earning a sustainable wage, and their garment collecting program is inherently inadequate, H&M are effectively greenwashing us with their “conscious collection” to distract from their unethical, mass production of clothes. We as consumers need to demand full transparency from H&M and insist that they take social and environmental responsibility in their production chain. Fashion cannot be sustainable if it is not ethical. Whilst extending the life of the clothes that you already own is definitely the most sustainable option, if you are looking to buy something new, try these more sustainable alternatives to H&M: https://goodonyou.eco/brands-youll-love-more-than-hm/
The H&M conscious collection was created in 2020 and consists of fashion pieces that are “created with a little extra consideration for the environment”. Accordingly, each fashion item in the collection is supposed to contain at least 50% of “more” sustainable materials, including organic cotton or recycled polyester. This is seemingly more environmentally friendly than the creation of clothes with only new materials, as it reduces resource usage. You can review the components of each piece on the online shopping platform, and as promised, materials like TencelTM Lyocell (a natural fabric made from “sustainably sourced” wood pulp) are often used, as well as various recycled polyesters. However, I did come across a few garments made with 100% polyester, but it is unclear whether these were recycled or not. Although certain polyesters can be biodegradable, this is not common, and H&M did not specifically advertise this. It is a material made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and although it is more durable from a consumer care standpoint, it releases tiny micro-plastics into the sea and water sources with each wash, regardless of whether recycled or not. Thus, the use of polyester in this collection illustrates that it is not as ‘eco-conscious’ as H&M has marketed it to be.
The information the company provides on the composition of different garments varies e.g. there is more information about Lyocell than polyester, highlighting inconsistency in their transparency. Importantly, there is no information provided on energy and water usage in the recycling process or the biodiversity impact of the products which is important from a sustainability perspective. Accordingly, whilst H&M are moving in the right direction by using more sustainable materials, more could be done toward achieving environmental sustainability and offering greater transparency to the consumer.
H&M are a fast fashion brand that produces garments in bulk. The CEO of H&M stated that the company’s size and sustainability are two different matters. I would argue that they are not: bulk production cannot be considered sustainable. To try and increase the circularity of H&M’s products, the company has introduced a Garment Collecting program in partnership with I:CO where returned clothes get separated to ‘re-wear, re-use and recycle’ in return for a discount on the consumer’s next buy. In reality, rather than working toward a solution to reduce waste, this encourages consumers to buy more believing that they are doing the moral thing.
Approximately 60% of the H&M’s products go to re-wear i.e. second hand or vintage. These clothes often get sent to countries in the global south; Ghana being one of the largest recipients. 40% of these clothes are immediately sent to landfills as there is no garment recycling in Ghana – impacting climate change by increasing methane emissions and affecting ground water through the release of chemicals. Accordingly, this process simply cannot be considered circular. As well as being rooted in colonial practices of power imbalances and oppression, the influx of garments has significant social and health effects in the receiving countries: impacting local fashion industries and labor markets as well as undermining local notions of sustainability and up-cycling. Thus, H&M’s so-called circular production portrays clothes as disposable and fosters more wasteful behaviour in both the Global North and South. To conclude no matter how sustainable the materials are, the scale of production taking place and the inadequate recycling program is not sustainable and is clearly a case of greenwashing.
The company outsources all of its production to countries mostly in the global South, the top three being Bangladesh, China and Indonesia. H&M argues that because of this outsourcing they are unable to set the workers’ wages. This allows them to evade social responsibility and place the blame of low wages on the factories that they outsource from. Whilst the company states that all suppliers and factories must sign a strict sustainability commitment, there is no evidence to prove that workers are receiving a fair wage. To put it into perspective, H&M’s total revenue in 2020 was 19,9 Billion Euros and the company earned a 1,2 Billion Euro profit, yet the average Bangladeshi worker earns less than 18 Euros per month. Rather than the factory workers benefitting, the rich are getting richer!
Additionally, whilst H&M boasts the promotion of woman’s empowerment, there have been incidents of gender-based violence along their supply chain – for example a current court case involving the death of a female garment worker, supposedly at the hands of her supervisor, is ongoing. H&M’s outsourcing allows them to evade responsibility for human rights violations and injustices such as these. Lastly the H&M website does not provide consistent transparency on where and in which factory some of the garments were made. This again illustrates the evasive nature of their marketing efforts, which makes it difficult to assess exactly who is making the goods and under what conditions.
Similarly from an environmental perspective, not only does outsourced production mean that transportation and thus greenhouse gases emissions increase, but it allows H&M to disassociate themselves from the environmental impacts produced by the factories supplying the company. Whilst H&M appears to be more sustainable to consumers and investors, it is those working in, or living near the supply factories, who are most affected by the pollution and environmental degradation created in the process of producing clothes they are unlikely to consume. This is environmentally and socially unjust and is a far cry from ‘conscious’.