How sustainable is H&M and its “Conscious” collection? A deep-dive into the fast fashion giant’s sustainability practices
Like with many other big fashion brands, H&M is now generously integrating the words “sustainability”, “recycling”, and “circular economy” on their website and marketing communications.
As a customer, you might think: “Great! My favourite fast fashion brand finally got the message that climate change exists, so now I don’t need to worry about it and can keep shopping without changing my habits or having to switch to a new brand.”
Sounds good, doesn't it? Maybe even a little bit too good?
How sustainable can a company really be when it sells “sustainable” T-Shirts for less than €5 apiece, while bringing out new items every single week? In other words, is H&M sustainable, really?
We asked ourselves this question and decided to get to the bottom of it.
Keep on reading what we found out! 🚀
1. Of all the materials H&M uses, only 0.7% are actually recycled (based on the 2018 sustainability report).
2. Items from H&M’s “Conscious” collection only have a fraction of recycled materials inside.
3. While H&M does make good promises and sustainability commitments for the future which include using recycled and sustainability-produced materials only by year 2030, the fast fashion business model per se isn’t sustainable in itself as it supports the “buy-and-throwaway” consumer mentality and still produces waste.
If you've ever shopped at H&M, whether in-store or online, you might have noticed that some garments are labeled "Conscious." Conscious means being "aware of and responding to one's surroundings" and is the name of H&M's sustainable collection.
This collection was launched back in 2010 and has attracted many customers since then.
Research from the Stern Center for Sustainable Business of New York University has actually found that products labeled as "sustainable" sell much faster than regular products. After all, who wouldn’t feel good if they bought a sustainable T-shirt instead of the regular H&M T-shirt?
But the collection has, rightly, also caused quite a stir, because, although it is now 11 years old, it is still not as sustainable as it pretends to be.
H&M itself states the following about articles of its Conscious Collection:
“They're made from at least 50% sustainably sourced materials – like organic cotton and recycled polyester — but many Conscious products contain a lot more than that. The only exception is recycled cotton which can only make up 20% of a product. If we included any more recycled cotton, the clothes simply wouldn't have the same quality.”
Well, this sounds a bit vague but seems reasonable so far.
Yet wait until we check the following example.
What you see below is the cheapest Conscious clothing item in the German H&M online store. For only €3.99 (!) you can get this top:
In the description of the product, we can see that the top is composed of 95% cotton and 5% spandex. Wait a second - how is this sustainable?!
If you keep reading until you reach the small print (and who ever does?), you will learn that the outer layer of the top contains 25% recycled cotton.
That means only a specific part of the top, i.e. the outer layer, contains a quarter of recycled cotton. With this, we can only guess how much recycled material is actually being used in the whole top! 🎉🙄 (Of course, we’re being ironic, because the answer is: probably very little.)
The whole situation reminds us of H&M's sustainability report from 2020. There, the company states in its "Sustainability Highlights" that 64.5% of its materials are from recycled or more sustainable sources. But what are"more sustainable sources"? An explanation for that is missing.
The sustainability report from 2018 sheds a little more light on this issue. It states that of all the materials H&M uses just 0.7% are recycled.
With hidden facts like these, which let us only make assumptions about the not-so-sustainable sustainability collection of H&M, many critics were and still are outraged, which has also led to legal consequences.
In 2019, the Norwegian consumer authority pilloried H&M and called the company's behavior "misleading" for consumers. H&M would be failing to provide adequate detail about why their garments are less polluting than other garments. As a result, consumers would not be able to clearly determine whether H&M is really sustainable or just greenwashing.
Besides the general problems with H&M's sustainability collection and the fact that H&M presents itself as more sustainable than it really is, there is also one big point that can be criticized: Their entire business model.
H&M is the second largest fashion retailer in the world after Inditex and definitely makes a tremendous contribution to the fast fashion market with its more than 5,000 stores worldwide.
And by the way: the revenue of H&M makes up a market share of 1.4%(globally)! That's quite the market power and impact!
Probably, we are all aware that producing clothes to be worn only a few times and then thrown away cannot be particularly sustainable. But let's take a look at some more numbers to get a glimpse of how much Fast Fashion is actually to be blamed for when talking about climate change.
First, let's take a quick look at a definition so we're all on the same page. The University of Queensland describes fast fashion as “cheaply produced and priced garments that copy the latest catwalk styles and get pumped quickly through stores in order to maximise on current trends”.
Fast fashion manufacturers have done very well with this tactic in recent years: From 2010 to 2015, the market grew by almost 10% annually.
But what is the impact of this growth and the fashion industry in general?
Well, a pretty big and bad one, if the UN Environment Programme is anything to go by.
This programme has found that the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of water in the world and was responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions in 2019 (that’s the equivalent of 1.2 billion tonnes).
That's already more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined and carbon emissions from the fashion industry are predicted to skyrocket by 60% by 2030 due to clothes being rarely worn and rarely recycled.
In the UN report, fashion is, therefore, described as including "environmentally and socially destructive practices" - it is quite obvious that this refers primarily to fast fashion.
These facts make it pretty clear that we have a big problem with the status quo of our fashion industry. This is partly due to the companies, but also due to our own “buy-and-throwaway” behavior as consumers.
But let us now take a look back at H&M. How does this company operate in the fast fashion space?
Basically, it can be stated: H&M is not an innocent lamb.
Like many others from the fast fashion industry, H&M has moved from producing two collections a year (winter & summer collections) to dropping new items on a weekly basis. (Zara, H&M’s fast fashion rival, has about 20 collections per year, for example, too. This is just how fast fashion operates now.)
The consequence of these weekly new items and collections is that H&M either sells the "old" ones, i.e. the items that came out maybe a month ago, at heavy discounts or is left sitting on the products.
What does the fashion giant then do with these things in mint condition? Burn them. 🔥
Yes, you read that right.
Already back in 2017, Greenpeace found that H&M was burning like-new items.
Run that through your head for a moment:
So H&M has tonnes and tonnes of clothes made, only for no one to buy it and it gets burned? And for that they waste water, plastic and chemicals? And we're not talking about one or two items that somehow get left behind, no. We are talking about 12 tonnes (!) of clothing per year.
Unfortunately, the same applies to the garment collection initiative that H&M launched a few years ago. What is that about?
On the surface, it actually looks like a good idea: customers can bring their worn clothes to any H&M store and H&M will take care of the recycling.
"Take care of recycling," however, means H&M passes the clothes on to its partner I:Collect, which has admitted that only 35% of the clothes are recycled at all. The rest? That's right: thrown away and burned.
So we can conclude that even if H&M tries to make it look like it, there is simply no way to bring fast fashion and sustainability together.
So if you look at sustainability at H&M, you quickly realize that there is a lot that is not going right. Nevertheless, we do not only want to highlight one side, but also say a few positive things about the fashion giant.
In 2017, for example, the company set very ambitious sustainability targets: They want to use only recycled and sustainably-produced materials by 2030 and aim to be climate positive throughout the value chain by 2040.
In addition, the H&M Foundation - a foundation in which H&M's founding family Persson has invested $180 million of their own wealth to do good - is currently investing $100 million in the so-called "Green Machine." This is a machine that, using the latest technologies, is supposed to be able to divide even difficult-to-recycle garments (which, for example, consist of many different interwoven yarns) back into their individual parts and thus make them reusable.
Even if the machine is not yet perfect (and there is, in fact, only one), it must be said that this is a great initiative by H&M.
In summary, one can say that H&M definitely presents some things as better than they actually are when you take a closer look. But the company has also set some positive goals and initiatives.
And yet, it has to be said that the only thing that would quickly and effectively make H&M's business model more sustainable is to simply produce less. If H&M (or any company, really - like Apple) wants to be truly sustainable, they need to think how to get away from the “buy new & buy now” business model and consider producing items that last to avoid all the unnecessary waste.