H&M Shaping swimsuit (“conscious choice”)

overall rating:

0.83

planets

Emily Boyd
7/24/2022
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Searching for a new swimming costume? From the outset, H&M’s shaping swimsuit may sound like the perfect option! A product from this company’s sustainability “conscious” range and made of recycled materials… What's not to love?! Unfortunately, it seems that the materials used are not as environmentally friendly as they first appear. The company is transparent about its suppliers and also has ambitious goals in place to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but there is little evidence that these will actually be reached. Whilst H&M is making efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, it is also aiming to double its sales by 2030. The green rhetoric appears to be somewhat of a marketing ploy to attract customers who care about the environment.

What it's made of:

1.5

On the green “conscious choice” tag attached to this product in store, H&M proudly states that the shell of this swimsuit contains 82% recycled polyamide, the lining 88% recycled polyester and the net lining 74% recycled polyamide. In a small print on another tag on the same item, we find that H&M’s so-called sustainable option contains some unsustainable material: the shell of the swimsuit is 18% elastane and the lining, 12%. 

It is positive to see that H&M is attempting to reduce its carbon footprint by considering more sustainable alternatives and avoiding using new raw materials. However, not all of the sustainable alternative materials that H&M uses are as eco-friendly as you might think: some materials used in this product aren’t even sustainable at all. This begs the question: is this product really green or is it simply greenwashed?

Normally, swimsuits are made from virgin plastics like nylon, whose production emits nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a clear contributor to climate change. H&M’s shaping swimsuit contains recycled polyamide (nylon) which is less harmful than newly produced nylon but this does not mean it is exceptionally eco-friendly. H&M suggests that it is saving nylon that would otherwise end up in landfills. Rather than saving nylon from landfills, H&M is simply delaying its time to landfill. Nylon itself is actually recyclable, but the H&M swimsuit cannot be recycled because it contains mixed fibres which are notoriously difficult to separate and therefore, recycle. Moreover, H&M mechanically recycle nylon to make their products which also contributes to creating garments that cannot be recycled at the end of their life. H&M suggest that they are working on having circular products (“by 2025”) but more work is definitely needed in this area.

In order to make this swimsuit, the nylon fibres are mixed with elastane and also polyester from recyclable PET bottles. The elastane used in this product is not sustainable because it is made from non-renewable fossil fuels and does not biodegrade easily. In contrast, PET plastic is a 100% recyclable material. This plastic is great for remaking plastic bottles and containers over and over again in a closed-loop plastic bottle recycling system. Unfortunately, combining this recyclable material with elastane and nylon means incorporating a fairly sustainable material into an unsustainable and non recyclable product.  

This product has been given 1.5 out of 3 planets in this section and not any less because when it comes to swimwear, recycled polyester and nylon are not a bad choice given that 100% natural fabrics are not suitable for swimwear’s purpose. The product has not been given any more planets because H&M’s shaping swimsuit is not made using fully sustainable materials. The company’s “conscious choice” label on this product appears to be a marketing tool more than anything. A customer may be disappointed to find that their idea of “conscious” when it comes to material choices is different to that of H&M. For clothes items sold by H&M, it turns out that a product only needs to contain “at least 50 per cent sustainable materials”. Luckily the swimsuit in this review is made up of a higher percentage of sustainable materials but these materials are still also questionable in terms of their true sustainability.

How it's made:

0.5

Given that H&M’s shaping swimsuit is made using synthetic materials, synthetic dyes are also used. These are generally not biodegradable and can be toxic to human health and ecosystems. 

 The manufacturing process of the swimsuit and many other garments sold by H&M also release a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, H&M released 10,723 metric tonnes of CO2e from burning fossil fuels in their manufacturing process. Today in 2021, this number has risen to 11, 973. H&M’s 2021 sustainability report states that they are aiming to halve their emissions “every decade”. Given that these have risen in the last 7 years due to increases in production, it is hard to imagine H&M’s emissions decreasing so much. It is positive that H&M are also striving to reach net zero emissions by 2040 but there is not enough evidence yet to suggest that this vision will materialise.

H&M has a high carbon footprint due to shipping and transporting their products across the globe. The company’s transport and business travel is also guilty of releasing a lot of CO2e emissions. In 2021, they released 478 kilotonnes of CO2e in this sector, an increase from 442 in 2020. There has been some improvement in this area since 2019 (when it was 500 kilotonnes) but more change is needed, especially since emissions actually rose in the last year. This company states that reducing scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 56% by 2030 is their “priority”. Unfortunately, it is hard to see any significantly large improvements over recent years.

On the more positive side, H&M have now started using some paper packaging instead of plastic, although they have not abandoned plastic packaging altogether which is a shame. Their success in this area is difficult to weigh up. On the one hand, H&M’s plastic packaging volume has decreased by 5% from 2020 to 2021. Given that plastic is not biodegradable, this is a good step towards being more sustainable. On the other, their total packaging volume increased by 4% in that same time period. Paper packaging is not sustainable if it is used excessively. An increase in packaging volume likely means a strain on resources. Paper production is linked to deforestation, uses lots of energy and water and contributes to waste issues. H&M needs to focus on putting less pressure on resources, even if they are renewable.

Who makes it:

0.5

H&M is a company with many sustainability goals set for 2025 and 2030, such as only using sustainably sourced materials by 2030. Unlike other companies, H&M actually provides us with a definition of what this means to them by defining sustainably sourced materials as “fabrics that require significantly less water, energy and chemicals to produce or grow than conventional materials”. It is positive that H&M have a focus on reducing the resources that they use, but slightly worrying that their definition of sustainably sourced materials does not include the workers involved in the process of sourcing the material. 

A lot of information on workers’ conditions in factories that produce garments for H&M is available on their website. There is a surprising amount of transparency regarding their suppliers and their workers’ wages. Whilst we can praise H&M for their transparency, we cannot praise them for how workers in their suppliers’ factories are treated. The company publishes the wages of the workers in different H&M suppliers’ factories across the globe. The swimsuit in this review was made in Bangladesh, where the average monthly wages in factories supplying H&M was 138 USD in 2021, with only 49% of workers earning above minimum wage. There are no statistics available for how many workers earn minimum wage or lower: this silence could suggest that there are workers in these factories earning below minimum wage. H&M has been at the heart of many scandals concerning the treatment of workers and overworking them up to breaking point. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, high production targets during the pandemic put large amounts of pressure on workers who were barely surviving on their existing wages. Wage theft in H&M’s supply chain was also highlighted as having happened during the pandemic. Severe exploitation of workers is a clear issue in H&M’s supply chain that cannot be excused.

Reading H&M’s 2021 sustainability report is a rose-tinted experience. It is easy to view this company as more sustainable than it really is. Transparency and sustainability goals are used as a marketing strategy to sell more clothing. Whilst H&M is admirably conscious about the climate crisis, the company is one of fast fashion which is unlikely to ever be sustainable.