Behind the Label: H&M’s Conscious Collection

ColumnIs fast fashion giant H&M really making moves to become more sustainable, or is it all just greenwashing?

Editor’s Note: This is Jessica Marati’s first column for Behind The Label, which will explore whether brands claiming sustainable initiatives are going green – or just plain greenwashing.

It’s so easy to love and hate H&M. On the one hand, the Swedish fashion chain has played a significant role in democratizing fashion and bringing trends once reserved for the upper classes to the masses. On the other, H&M’s fast fashion model has accelerated the fashion cycle to its current frenetic pace, driving down prices and increasing pressure within the industry to produce more, quicker, with little regard to the people and environments involved.

In recent years, H&M has made efforts to be more transparent with its social responsibility efforts, releasing a hefty Conscious Actions Sustainability Report in 2010 that outlined its sustainability goals and action roadmap. The company also dabbled in small scale sustainable fashion campaigns like a capsule organic cotton line in 2007, a recycled fabric commitment in 2009, and an eco-fiber Garden Collection in 2010, none of which gained much notice.

In 2011, however, H&M stepped up its efforts with the release of a much-anticipated Conscious Collection, a white-hued line of separates made from organic cotton, Tencel®, and recycled polyester. In the fall, they followed up with a romantic floral line inspired by Swedish folklore as well as a holiday party collection. New lines for 2012 haven’t yet been announced, but it appears that H&M is folding its sustainability efforts into more of its products across the board.

But how much of this progress is part of an honest, dedicated commitment to doing good, and how much is just great greenwashing? Let’s have a look at some of the facts behind the marketing.

THE GOOD: In September, H&M surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, consuming more than 15,000 tonnes in 2010, an increase of 77 percent from the previous year. The milestone is linked to H&M’s aim to source all of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2020. H&M is also a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which introduces more sustainable practices at every step of the cotton production supply chain. In addition to organic cotton, H&M has also experimented with other eco-fibers, including recycled polyester, recycled polyamide, recycled plastic, organic linen, recycled cotton, recycled wool, Tencel®, and organic hemp.

THE BAD: Although H&M is a member of the Fair Labor Association, which aims to improve working conditions in factories, the company was recently hit with a slew of bad press after a series of mass fainting incidents at partner factories in Cambodia. An investigation from VICE TV explored the impoverished conditions under which many of the young female workers live. And that’s just one of many scandals: a Greenpeace report recently alleged that H&M-affiliated factories are discharging hazardous chemicals into rivers in China. In 2010, the German edition of the Financial Times reported that H&M was knowingly passing off genetically modified cotton as organic. That same year, it was discovered that an H&M store in Manhattan was destroying and discarding bags of excess merchandise. H&M representatives insisted that the incident was isolated, and that company policy is to donate unworn clothing to charity.

THE QUESTIONABLE: H&M’s corporate transparency about its steps toward sustainability are certainly laudable. However, it’s undeniable that H&M’s fast fashion model is in itself wildly unsustainable, with its focus on producing cheap disposable clothing for a world where tastes seem to change by the minute. As a pioneer of this business model, H&M is fast forwarding fashion trends, as well as driving down the costs of clothing to the delight of consumers but the detriment of competitors, including ones that operate more sustainably. One commitment the fast fashion giant might add to its action plan list is reversing that trend.

Images: H&M.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.