Can fast fashion be sustainable? Can a clothing giant like H&M, which produces 3 billion garments a year be allowed to use words like “Sustainable” and “conscious”? To be sustainable means to be able to be maintained or upheld. To answer the above question, I believe that there are two main elements to look at; human labor rights and environmental pollution & waste. Let’s break it down.
“H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell. “As H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labeled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.” — Bente Øverli, Deputy Director of Norway’s Consumer Authority
If you look at the information on H&M’s own website about their conscious collection, it’s somewhat limited. They have a webpage entitled ‘HM Conscious Explained’, of which you can see the full text in the image below.
Environmental Pollution & Waste
In terms of explaining why these products are ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, the only justification given is that they use up to 50% recycled material (or 20% for cotton products) in production. However, they don’t go into detail about the types of items they’re recycling, how they’re recycled, how they’re produced, what the carbon footprint of these products is compared to their other ranges, or even what their definition of ‘sustainable’ is. It doesn’t feel very transparent.
Alongside this explanation comes their marketing and photography of the collection, all of which centres around ‘green’ imagery of Conscious-clad models surrounded by lots of grass and lush green plants. When corporations provide misleading information or a false impression about how products are environmentally sound, it is called greenwashing.
According to Public Radio International, H&M works in collaboration with global recycling company I:CO, which picks up donated clothes from 4,500 H&M stores and takes them to sort plants around the world.
“Around 60 percent goes to re-wear, so secondhand and vintage,” explains Catarina Midby, sustainability manager at H&M UK and Ireland. “What cannot be re-worn will be reused and repurposed for things like cleaning cloths, insulation for houses and cars, and other products.”
Only 5-10% of the H&M collected clothing is recycled into fibers that can ultimately be made into new clothes. The remainder is “downcycled” into lower-value products such as insulation. This is partly because textiles are mechanically shredded when they are recycled, which shortens and weakens the fibers. Also, garments made with more than one type of fiber cannot yet be recycled.
Plus, a significant percentage of the clothing that they produce goes immediately to waste, never even reaching the stores for consumers to purchase. In 2017 it was announced that the Vasteras power plant in Sweden would be going fossil fuel free, partly because they had been contracted by H&M to burn their defective and unsold clothing. After opening that year, by November 2017 the plant had burned 15 tons of discarded clothes from H&M.
The unreliability of their sustainability claims are clear in the below statement from Helena Helmersson, H&M’s Head of Sustainability when she was asked how H&M could prove and ‘guarantee’ their eco-credentials: “I don’t think guarantee is the right word…A lot of people ask for guarantees: ‘Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?’ Of course, we cannot when we’re such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions.”— Helena Helmersson, H&M Head of Sustainability
Human Labor Rights
Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, H&M joined the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, successfully working with other brands and labour unions to address health and safety issues in 100s of factories. But they also promised to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018, a promise they have spectacularly failed to meet. Also in 2018, factories that supply H&M were named in reports by Global Labour Justice detailing the abuse of female garment workers.
While the brand does have a project to improve wages, there is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage across its entire supply chain, despite promises to the contrary. On another bad note, almost none of H&M’s supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights. That means not enough of its facilities have collective bargaining or the right for workers to make a complaint. With the pandemic in 2020, we have learned H&M discloses some policies to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19, but implementation is uncertain.
“You enter the factory at 8 in the morning, but you never know when you will be able to leave. Sometimes we go home at 4 AM,” said one worker making H&M clothes at Koush Moda, an H&M “gold supplier” factory in Bulgaria.
“[My] batch supervisor came up behind me as I was working on the sewing machine, yelling, ‘You are not meeting your target production.’ He pulled me out of the chair and I fell on the floor. He hit me, including on my breasts. He pulled me up and then pushed me to the floor again [and] kicked me.”
One of my favorite quotes in the space of sustainable fashion is, “if you’re not paying for it, someone else is”. If we rely on fast fashion brands to make the industry sustainable, then we’ll be waiting a long time. Given the resources that they use and the waste they produce, I ultimately think that there’s a fundamental contradiction at the center of the idea that a fast-fashion brand can be sustainable, which marketing and labels cannot fix. When fashion companies do not care for their labor force, they automatically become unsustainable, so in my eyes, that would be the starting point for any brand labeling themselves as sustainable. Remember that if they are not telling you who is making their clothing, they are most likely hiding something.