H&M Are Greenwashing Us Again: Can Fast Fashion Ever Be Ethical?

Written by Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

H&M’s 2021 sustainability concept, Innovation Stories, aims to ‘continue’ their journey towards sustainable fashion. The brand has dedicated themselves to championing cutting edge textiles developed by brilliant thinkers, researchers and scientists. The first collection of the project, ‘Science Story’, dropped on the 18th of March and utilizes environmentally conscious fabrics including ‘Desserto’, a plant-based leather made from organically grown cactus, and ‘EVO’ by Fulgar, a bio-based yarn derived from castor oil used as a sustainable nylon alternative.  

Nylon, a non-biodegradable fabric using the key ingredient petroleum oil, makes up 12% of the world’s synthetic fibre production. The production of nylon comes at a huge expense to the environment, a great deal of energy is required to create the fabric and a number of waste materials are produced in the process. On top of the use of fossil fuel demanding the need for drilling, large quantities of water are needed to cool nylon fabric which then carries pollutants to the manufacturing plants surroundings. Even worse, the production of nylon often relies on adipic acid, a component which during its production releases nitrous acid into the atmosphere, a chemical considered 300 times worse for the environment than CO2.   

The materials in H&M’s new collection appear to be ‘green’, with H&M backing up eco-friendly claims with scientific evidence. But with a track record like H&M’s, many sustainable fashion lovers are rightfully wary of their new project. The collection’s claims gloss over their historic greenwashing which has lured environmentally conscious consumers into purchasing the brands less-than environmentally friendly products.

Greenwashing refers to the false impression or misleading information given to show exactly how a product is environmentally sound. The term was coined in 1986 after a hotel encouraged guests to reuse towels to save the environment when they really did so to reduce dry cleaning bills. As more people become open to the idea of switching daily products in favour of eco-friendly options, brands are capitalising on this by exaggerating eco-claims to appeal to this new audience. 

In 2019, H&M launched ‘Conscious’, a ‘green’ clothing line. The company claims their use of organic cotton and recycled polyester increased the collection’s environmental consciousness. However, upon further inspection, the line was nothing but a veiled attempt to make the brand appear more environmentally friendly. 

These clothes may make you feel good because you think by choosing H&M’s Conscious line over a different clothing item, you’re helping the planet. Firstly, after some digging, it appears that only 20% of the polyester is recycled. Secondly, one men’s shirt from the collection, made of ‘100% organic cotton’, is supposedly sustainable because of the fabric. But can an item of clothing made from a material that on average takes 20,000 litres of water to produce really be sustainable? Unlike H&M’s new collection, where we see a clear indication of the way materials are sourced and how they impact the environment, these Conscious items don’t document how the products are sustainable. Omitting this information is entirely legal.

Companies can get away with being misleading by using vague terminology when marketing their supposedly environmentally friendly products. This means there is room for interpretation and consumers are left to determine what companies actually mean, allowing for other factors to sway them into choosing what company represents their values. By being misleading in their marketing, consumers are being denied the opportunity to make informed choices. If a student on a budget wants to buy clothing that has little impact on their wallet and the environment, they will choose a £34.99 jacket from H&M over a £550 coat from Patagonia, a trailblazing sustainable company. The difference in prices makes it an easy decision. These prices show that shopping sustainably comes at a price. Sadly, this is a luxury many cannot afford.

H&M’s new project may be ‘sustainable’ but it cannot be confirmed as ‘ethical’. Sustainable fashion focuses on the environment, ethical fashion spotlights the impact to the industry and society at large.

H&M claims they are a ‘responsible business partner’ and that, through offering long-term benefits to garment workers and suppliers, they positively impact the safeguarding and fair treatment of factory workers. However, the information they offer up on this topic contrasts their claims. The fact they don’t own their factories, instead opting to outsource production from local factory owners in Asia and Europe, means that despite supporting local economies, they really don’t have any idea how those garment workers are treated. And though they signed the ATC commitment on purchasing practices and ranked highly as one of the most transparent fashion brands in last year’s Fast Fashion Index, the mistreatment of workers in the garment supply chain is a hard timeline to track thanks to the constant moving around of items.

Further calling into question the ethical standard of H&M, the brand’s CEO hasn’t answered questions regarding the death of Jeyasre Kithiravel, a 20-year-old H&M factory worker who was raped and murdered by her supervisor. The brand issued a vague statement and promised to launch an ‘independent investigation’, despite the supervisor’s confession to the crime. The statement removed H&M from the issue and did not imply any accountability. Despite H&M claiming to be a company with zero-tolerance policies for gender-based violence, international labour rights groups blame H&M’s failure to implement their own code of conduct as creating an unsafe environment for not only Kithiravel but all women in the garment supply chain. 

Sustainability within the fashion industry is a huge conversation that has seemingly created little meaningful action. The fashion industry is the Earth’s second biggest polluter, contributing 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the issue goes deeper and affects people across the globe in a myriad of ways. Taking conscious steps to mitigate issues is the only way forward, the change needs to be demanded and proprietors need to listen. The blame cannot be put into the hands of one party, brands play to the demand of consumers and where there is demand there will be supply. On the other hand, money-hungry companies have long-standing tactics to coerce consumers into purchases. Financial gain is still the driving force behind fast fashion. As long as we remain disconnected from the source of our clothing, companies will continue to prioritise their finances over truly sustainable production lines. It’s a long road to sustainable, ethical fashion and the steps, no matter how small, are moving us closer to what we should all want: affordable, sustainable, ethical wardrobes that make you feel as good as you look.

Featured image courtesy of H&M. No changes have been made to these images.

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