An exploration into H&M's sustainability methods
Since being founded in 1947, Scandinavian fashion brand H&M has grown enormously into one of the world's leading fast fashion retailers. Throughout its own popularity, and the popularity of its daughter brands: Monki, Weekday, COS, & Other Stories, and Arket, H&M has a significant chokehold upon both the high street and the online fashion space.
H&M's apparel is a go-to for many consumers because it's affordable, accessible, and offers a catch-all range; women, men, and children are all catered for through generic pieces such as jeans, knitwear, and swimwear.

Now, it may be a stretch to assume we've all purchased from H&M but, with 74 participating countries and over 5000 total stores, I am confident that a lot of us have at least been tempted. Perhaps it's the ease, perhaps it's the style, or perhaps it's the promise that your purchase will be directly supporting a sustainable fashion movement.

H&M's unique selling point appears to be its commitment to radically reforming the fast fashion industry, with a vision to become fully circular in the future. Unlike many other fast fashion brands, H&M has been vocal and transparent about how they're working to reduce the impact of fast fashion upon the environment… but are they?

In-store recycling bins, rental services, and sustainably sourced collections sound amazing and, in some ways, they are! Having such a large corporation as H&M endorse these sustainable methods is great for the message of environmentalism. But, if we look below the surface of these offers, are they as promising as we might first think?

Anti-fast fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna has criticised H&M's supposed sustainability methods for being a façade of greenwashing. The concept of fast fashion is an extremely linear model; consumers purchase new items impulsively, cheaply and, in some instances, unnecessarily, which oftentimes has disastrous effects on the environment. Textile waste, water pollution and unethical sweatshop conditions are just a few of the consequences we may be buying into when we purchase from fast fashion brands. For these reasons, Venetia La Manna denies the possibility that H&M could ever be considered a sustainable, nor truly accessible brand, and instead believes that H&M's attempts at sustainability are futile in view of this wider context. Let's take a closer look at some of these attempts for ourselves.

In-store recycling bins

H&M premiered their global garment collecting programme in 2013 by implementing in-store recycling bins. These bins accepted donations of old clothes and textiles in exchange for a generous 15% H&M discount voucher off your next purchase. Obviously, this scheme ran popular with fashion fans as they not only bought into the moral reward of charity but the financial reward of vouchers as well.
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These recycling bins are still in use today, housing donations before they're transported to sorting plants, where they are hand sorted by I:CO into relevant groups. According to H&M, these groups are as follows:

Rewear: Wearable clothes are marketed as second-hand clothing.

Re-use: If the clothes are not suitable for rewear, they're turned into other products such as remake collections or cleaning cloths.

Recycle: All other clothes and textiles are shredded into textile fibres and used to make insulation materials and more.

Now, before you go bagging up last season's buys, there are some speculations about whether this programme is as fruitful as it is made out to be. Research shows that only 25% of globally recycled clothes actually end up in sorting plants, and only 35% of H&M's donations are successfully recycled. Plus, of this 35%, the majority is used for carpet padding, painters' cloths or insulation, with a disparaging 0.7% being used in H&M's garments. For a clothing brand that pledges to pioneer a sustainable, circular fashion model, these statistics are shocking. 'Well', you may say, '35% is better than nothing', and to that I say yes, yes it is! However, if only 35% of donations are recycled into these non-clothing items, yet 100% of donations are compensated with H&M vouchers, one may assume that H&M's fast fashion model is still very much at play beneath the guise of this programme.
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Rental Service

H&M introduced their rental scheme in Stockholm in 2019, to allow customers to rent selected Conscious Exclusive Outfits. Plus, as recently as 2021, H&M has launched a suit rental service in the UK and the US which allows customers to rent suits free of charge for 24 hours. These schemes are perfect for one-off occasions such as job interviews, weddings, or parties where individuals do not want to commit to a new outfit purchase. Whether this scepticism is due to financial, environmental, or even aesthetic reasons, renting clothes is a far more sustainable alternative to buying or thrifting them because it slows down our individual consumption.
These schemes appear to be transparent and champion a more circular fashion model. Unfortunately, the Conscious Exclusive Outfits scheme is only active in Stockholm. This inaccessibility majorly impacts the message of sustainability because many people are unaware that renting clothes is even an option for them. Plus, if we recall just how prevalent H&M is in fashion culture, with it operating in over 5000 stores in 74 different countries, having three rental schemes across the board is grossly disproportionate.

Sustainably Sourced Collections

Conscious, H&M's self-proclaimed sustainable clothing line, is another point of contention; this range boasts recycled polyester, circulose (a vegan, non-toxic, and biodegradable fabric made from recycled waste), and organic cotton.
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However, you guessed it, these claims are slightly misleading. Having done some research, it appears only 20% of the polyester used in this range is actually recycled, and that organic cotton, well, data from 2013 shows that only 10.8% of cotton deployed by H&M was organically sourced. More recent statistics concerning H&M's specific use of organic cotton are undisclosed; however, their 2019 Group Sustainability Performance Report details that 16.02% of their 'sustainable cotton' is founded from organic sources. Whilst this does show progression, it still remains a miniscule amount in comparison to the obscene levels of production H&M oversees daily.
It is these undercover environmental costs that prevent me, and many other sustainable fashion junkies, from embracing H&M as a fully sustainable brand. Whilst they do make an effort, perhaps more than their rivals, they still have a lot of work to do, and this is often reflected in their annual Group Sustainability Performance Report, where they address their shortfalls and pledge their aspirations for the year ahead. This attempt at environmental transparency with the consumer is something that should be celebrated and encouraged globally, not only in fashion, but in all product and service-based industries.

But fundamentally, as a fast-fashion brand, H&M has little chance of making tangible environmental change; unless their model is completely reformed by slowing down production rates, championing sustainable materials across the board, and promoting reducing, reusing, and renting as preferable alternatives to purchasing, H&M will forever be considered a greenwashed brand. Hopefully, if we can keep this pressure and passion, greater change may occur sooner than we thought.

In the meantime, if you still want your fashion fix, click here to check out some guaranteed green brands, so you can shop guilt-free!
Article by Samantha Rainsbury