If asked to select the phrase that most aptly describes what H&M means to you, would you choose: (A) a dependable source of £10 going-out tops, or (B) a sustainability pioneer with solid eco credentials?
The Swedish retail giant would prefer the latter, and is ramping up its campaign to convince the shopping public that “fast fashion” and “sustainability” need not be a contradiction in terms. It’s taking a multi-pronged approach, embracing doorstopper sustainability reports, music videos, jargon, and, yes, you.
31% of H&M’s cotton is now sustainable
Let’s start with last week’s release of a 130-page sustainability report which charts impressive stats like the fact 31% of cotton used by H&M brands (which include Monki, COS and & Other Stories) is now sustainably sourced and a 78% rise in global energy use from renewable sources. H&M also set the goal of becoming “100% circular” which means they’ll commit to using only recycled or sustainably sourced materials in the future.
Donate a bag of clothes, get £5 off
These ambitious announcements came as H&M launched World Recycle Week with the release of a new video from MIA, the face of the campaign. In it, she urges listeners to “rewear it” and “regenerate the nation,” all to excite us into donating thousands of tonnes of unwanted clothing to H&M’s clothing collection bins from 18-24 April (dates which overlap with Fashion Revolution Week- the now annual event which marks the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh- leading organisers to brand H&M “insensitive”).
As for where you come in, where do you think they’re going to get all those tonnes of clothing to recycle? Every time a shopper donates a bag of clothes, they receive a voucher for £5 off their next H&M shop.
H&M is now one of the most sustainable businesses in the world
Textile recycling is one of the most visible aspects of H&M’s “circular” future. The company says it has collected 28,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing since 2013. “The majority of the clothes that we get in are in such good condition that they can be reworn again,” Anna Gedda, H&M's Head of Sustainability said in an exclusive interview. They’re sold on to second-hand markets, and a portion of the remaining clothes are recycled, with some of the resulting textiles making their way—circling back—into new H&M garments.
Even critics concede that H&M’s enthusiasm and apparent transparency surrounding its sustainability goals is a good thing. It’s enough to earn H&M a mention in Corporate Knights’ 2016 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World Index, one of only four fashion companies to earn the distinction.
But it’s complicated. Take the recycling campaign. It’s impossible to recycle blended materials, so that’s all of those cotton-poly-elastane-wool-acrylic-etc pieces out. Fibres in fabrics that are recyclable, like cotton, are degraded by wear, so any garment using recycled fibres require the addition of “virgin” material. None of the items H&M produced last year were 100% recycled. “That’s one of the visions of what a circular product could look like,” Gedda said, noting that 1.3m garments used some recycled fibres in 2015.
Is this all “greenwashing”?
It’s enough to lead some observers to dismiss H&M’s efforts as greenwashing, a creative way to assuage the guilt of increasingly informed shoppers. “It’s marketing that confuses well-intentioned people into believing there is no harm,” Andrew Morgan, director of The True Cost, a new documentary about the environmental and social impact of fashion, said in an email. “[H&M] is speeding up already frantic consumption, and leading people into a harmful relationship with clothing seen as a disposable good. That has a staggering impact on the health of our planet and the well-being of some of the world’s most vulnerable workers.”
Can shopping ever really be sustainable?
Gedda disputes the idea that shopping is inherently unsustainable. “Sustainability doesn’t mean it’s bad to buy something in a store,” she said. “When you do that you contribute to jobs and social development—but what you also contribute to is a negative impact on the environment, and that’s what we need to break.” She concedes that H&M has room to improve in “making customers value the clothes that they buy.”
“For H&M, we don’t want people to buy things that they don’t need. We want them to buy things that they want, that they will love and that they will really take care of and value,” she said. “I don’t think price has anything to do with it. It’s more about having a piece of clothing that you think is beautiful, fits well, is good quality and that you want to have for a long time.”
That’s a difficult ethos to promote in a store with bins (sorry, clothes recycling boxes) next to the cash points. ‘Buy it, wear it, bin it, and buy more’ probably wasn't the circular model Gedda had in mind, but it may be enough to get more shoppers through the door. “The benefit of being so big is we can really reach big masses of customers and actually change their behaviours,” Gedda said. One £5 voucher at a time.