ColumnIs H&M as conscious as it claims to be?
The notion of H&M as a sustainable fashion brand might strike you as an oxymoron. How can the Swedish retailer, best known for pioneering wasteful, disposable, trend-driven fast fashion, possibly claim to be socially responsible?
It might take time, but that is H&M’s aim, if the company’s latest Conscious Actions Report is any indication. The 93-page document outlines in detail H&M’s goals, actions, and progress toward becoming a more sustainable fashion brand. Along with the report, H&M recently released its full supplier list for the first time, a significant move toward greater transparency for the multi-billion dollar corporation. And then there’s H&M’s new Conscious Exclusive Collection, the latest in a line of fashionable capsule collections featuring eco-preferable fabrics, like organic cotton and recycled polyester.
According to CEO Karl-Johan Persson, H&M doesn’t just want to improve its own sustainability – it wants to create long-lasting systemic change in the fashion industry. “Our size gives us the opportunity to promote such change well beyond our own operations,” Persson says in the report. “Together with our millions of customers we can bring massive change – from improving the livelihood of a cotton farmer to how our customers care for the clothes they buy.”
Some fashion brands launch capsule eco-collections, promote them to death, then call it a day. But for H&M, its Conscious Collections are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social responsibility efforts.
At the latest collection’s launch in New York City last week, I caught up with Caterina Midby, director of fashion and sustainability communications, to discuss how H&M incorporates sustainability into the design process. Turns out, the first step is having high expectations.
“We never start the design process by seeing what’s available,” said Midby. “We would rather design the garment, decide on how it looks, then go out and look… some of these fabrics have never been available on the market. It’s been up to us to request them and for our suppliers to develop them.”
Indeed, H&M’s size has allowed it to demand from suppliers what other brands can’t. But in that power lies great responsibility, which the company appears to be taking seriously. In its Conscious Actions Report, H&M identifies seven major areas of commitment:
- Provide fashion for conscious consumers
- Choose and reward responsible partners
- Be ethical
- Be climate smart
- Reduce, reuse, recycle
- Use natural resources responsibly
- Strengthen communities
Alone, the commitments sound pretty innocuous. However, the Conscious Actions listed beneath each commitment reveal a strong understanding of the challenges facing the global apparel industry, as well as the extenuating factors that make those challenges difficult to overcome. For instance, under “Choose and reward responsible partners,” commitment number one is for H&M to be a good partner to suppliers, “by providing fair lead times, fair pricing, on-time payments and clear communication.” Too often, brands blame their suppliers when labor abuses occur. Here, H&M asserts that it, too, bears the responsibility to be a good partner.
Some other highlights from the report:
- For the second year in a row, H&M was the largest purchaser of organic cotton in the world – an amount totaling only 7.8 percent of its total cotton use, which is indicative of the power a brand has at H&M’s scale. The company’s goal is to convert entirely to more sustainably sourced cotton by 2020.
- In 2012, H&M became the first global retailer to start a system to collect and recycle old clothing. Customers now have the opportunity to drop old clothes, from any brand, in collection bins at H&M stores. H&M will then reuse and recycle those clothes in an effort to close the textile loop.
- Also this year, H&M launched a new three-year partnership with the World Water Fund to create new standards for water stewardship in the fashion industry, starting from the design of a garment all the way to advocating for public policy changes.
It wasn’t too long ago that clothing was something that people valued. Garments cost a bit more, but they lasted for decades. If you ripped your shirt, you would mend it. You left the mall with one or two purchases, and you would wear them to pieces.
But today, you can find H&M shirts for $3 and jeans for $15. If you rip your shirt, you throw it away and buy a new one. You leave the mall with 15 purchases, and some you don’t even get around to wearing.
Through sophisticated marketing and merchandising, fast fashion brands like H&M have fundamentally changed the way that consumers approach shopping, leading many to consume more than they actually need and dispose of everything else. H&M’s rock-bottom pricing model has also had a profound effect on the rest of the fashion world, forcing other brands to lower their prices in order to compete. What this usually means is lower quality fabrics and production methods across the board, as well as lower wages for garment workers.
But when questioned about the (un)sustainability of its business model, H&M’s sustainability executives seem to shrug off the company’s responsibility. At an H&M- and Vogue-sponsored panel on conscious fashion last week, head of sustainability Helena Helmersson dodged the fast fashion question by saying, “For us it’s about reducing impact. Still we’re going to expand, so how do we reduce the impact and our footprint?”
Caterina Midby, who also sat on the panel, placed the onus for responsible consumption on the consumer: “It’s not how like it used to be when I started in the business, when trends change from one season to another,” she said. “Now it’s all about personal style. You don’t really need to renew your wardrobe every six to seven months. It’s really up to the consumer.”
H&M prides itself on democratizing fashion, on “bringing it to the masses,” if you will. It’s a lovely thought – who doesn’t love democracy? – but too often it leads to overconsumption. According to Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion,” the average American purchases 68 garments and seven pairs of shoes each year. Compare that to 1929, when the average woman had just nine outfits total.
I place part of the blame on H&M for getting us to this point. Whether H&M wants to admit it or not, it’s due to its sophisticated marketing and merchandising engine that consumers now feel the need to buy more of what they don’t need.
That said, I am encouraged by H&M’s stated commitment to sustainability. One has only to visit HM.com or walk into one of its retail stores to see the marketing power that the company has put behind its Conscious campaign. The flora and fauna swathing spokeswoman Vanessa Paradis may be a bit overkill, but the message is pretty clear: H&M is going green, and it’s taking you with it.
If H&M was able to change the way we view the fashion calendar in the course of just a few decades, I hope that now, it will use its power to make us view fashion more responsibly. A brand of its scale has the ability not only to have a positive effect through its own behavior, but also to influence its peers and its customers. I hope it is conscious of that fact.