BMO behind the scenes: How sustainable are H&M?

BMO behind the scenes: How sustainable are H&M?

Posted By Lily Courtauld

With the marked increase in sustainable and conscious offerings from big name high street players, we wanted to take a closer look at the sustainability credentials of these brands, starting with H&M. We want to know whether there’s genuine merit in their claims and whether, beyond the hype, their conscious collections offer pieces to be proud of that are worth investing in, or whether they’re yet more of the same dressed up in a little greenery.

We’re tempted to congratulate H&M for taking the need for sustainability in one of the world’s most opaque and polluting industries seriously, while bringing the cause to a wider audience and offering something eco to their voracious customers. However we’re also left wondering whether ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’ in this context are pure marketing strategy to drive yet more sales without due consideration to what it truly means to produce in this way.

H&M was one of the first high street names to venture into the world of conscious clothing, using organic cotton in a limited range back in 2004. But it wasn’t until the brand officially launched a dedicated conscious collection in 2011 that the press or its customer base took much notice. The collections perform undoubtedly well with each one selling out almost as soon as the glossy campaigns hit public consciousness; pieces often pop up across the resale space with items selling for over the RRP – an clear indicator of continued desirability.

This year marks the seventh H&M Conscious Collection and what at first appeared to be a foray into the eco world has now emerged as core strategy for the group. The brand makes hefty claims about its sustainability agenda in the recently released Sustainability Report 2017:

Recycled or other sustainably sourced materials made up 35% (26%) of H&M group’s total material use. The goal is to only use this kind of material in 2030.

For a brand that produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material every year, this is certainly no small commitment. And it’s one that would have real environmental impact. Surely a far greater positive environmental and human impact would be to reduce production volume and thus consumer consumption – something which H&M will not do according to Sustainability Manager, Catarina Midby,

“You could always argue that, of course, in order to be really sustainable, you should cut down on your consumption, but at the same time we are a fashion company and we don’t really want to compromise fashion for sustainability”.

An interesting choice of words, given the key elements which make up the term ‘sustainability’ are human and environmental resources. When push comes to shove, this statement demonstrates that sustainability remains a priority only so far as it doesn’t interfere with the group’s plans to churn out approximately 50 micro seasons per year (spring/summer, autumn/winter anyone? Don’t be absurd) driving demand for newness and, of course, rapid sales growth.

H&M launched its first garments made from recycled shore-line waste; Bionic® within the annual H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection.

This is an interesting initiative; H&M also partner with ECONYL® who specialise in regenerating nylon waste into new fibres. Having met the ECONYL® team at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, we are impressed and encouraged. One of our favourite new partner brands Davy J, makers of beautifully understated elegant swimwear, work with ECONYL® cloth and we are well aware of its benefits. It’s robust and supportive as well as being environmentally positive. We’d applaud the wider use of these yarns throughout H&M’s collections.

H&M group collected almost 18,000 tonnes of textiles through its garment collecting initiative. That is the equivalent of 89 million T-shirts. 61,000 tonnes of textiles have been collected since 2013.

The concept, is a good one; practically, what are plans for the collected items? And can the program work to make enough of a difference to offset the damage done by the relentless production of new throwaway collections? The public objective of the program, according to the marketing campaign is to give clothes “new purpose” by breaking them down and creating new garments out of old.

In a 2016 interview with Eco Cult’s Editor in Chief Alden Wicker, Henrik Lampa, H&M’s Development Sustainability Manager, admitted that the technology wasn’t quite there to process the clothes into new garments. Two years on, has much changed? According to Claudia Marsales, Ontario's senior manager of waste and environmental management, it would take more than ten years to fully recycle the equivalent volume of a days worth of product sold. We know from H&M that their recycling operation hasn’t yet started. The donated clothes for the most part are shipped internationally to be resold as second hand (not the worst plan ever, but not what the campaign promises).

There’s also the question of timing; H&M launched this initiative at the same time as the Fashion Revolution campaign (a well known awareness campaign in response to the Rana Plaza disaster). H&M maintain that this clash was unintentional but we’re skeptical. Fashion Revolution is a global movement fighting for the same things that H&M claim to be. Is it possible for a brand worth its sustainability salt (not to mention as marketing savvy as H&M) that this could have escaped their consciousness?

Turning to the conscious collections themselves, it’s clear that sustainability is delivered through materials; Tencel, organic cotton and recycled polyester. This is a step in the right direction, for sure. But what of craftsmanship? Unlike the majority of H&M’s collection, will these pieces last longer than a couple of seasons? If the clothes aren’t made to last, then surely, won’t these garments potentially be yet more landfill fodder along with the majority of the half a billion items produced by H&M each year? To answer these questions fully Instead of offering just our thoughts, we want to bring you fact; stay tuned as we work with some expert tailors to deconstruct the craftsmanship of these garments. More on this soon!

At BuyMeOnce we’re frequently challenged by our customers on price and asked about how to shop sustainably on a budget; as a high street brand, could H&M be a contender for those who wish to invest in only conscious clothing? It’s true that H&M are trying; they are by far leading the way in the context of fast fashion but still only 8% of their collections are made from sustainable resources according to the Common Objective Report. They are investing in new programs and technologies more and more, so it would not be accurate to say that they are not serious about sustainability. But I do think that we can confidently say that, until there are dramatic changes to their volume production approach, no amount of recycled materials can make a fast fashion brand authentically sustainable.

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