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H&M's "Conscious" Collection? Don't Buy Into the Hype

04/22/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

As soon as I walked in, I wanted to run out. All of the feelings of awkward adolescence came streaming back as the European house music blared in my ears and over-enthusiastic pre-teens bounced through the huge glass doors.

It was 2013 and I hadn't stepped foot in an H&M store in nearly five years. Despite my unabashed dislike for the giant fast fashion retailer, its new "Conscious Collection" had recently launched and I wanted to know what all of the fuss was about.

Celebrities from Michelle Williams to Penn Badgley were donning "conscious" threads on the red carpet. Reputable media outlets were heralding H&M as the fearless leader in environmental integrity. So I wondered, could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

I walked over to the first store manager I could find and a sprightly brunette in a faux leather jacket turned around to assist me.

"Hi, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the Conscious Collection," I asked.

"I'm not sure what you mean... " she replied back.

"You know, the new line of organic cotton and recycled fabrics... the eco-friendly stuff?" I attempted to explain.

Blank stare.

"Remember? Helen Hunt wore that navy gown on the red carpet? The Conscious... Collection..."

I trailed off.

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If you keep up with sustainable fashion trends (or are just a really big H&M fan), you know that the company recently released its 2014 sustainability report.

In the first few pages of the document, H&M's CEO Karl-Johan Persson says:

"In order to remain a successful business, we need to keep growing - and at the same time respect the planetary boundaries."

I'll be honest, I had to re-read that sentence a few times. My first thought was:

On what planet can you continue to produce 600 million garments per year and not exceed ecological boundaries?

The success of H&M is dependent on a strategy of planned obsolescence. Fast fashion can never truly be sustainable because the business model itself is inherently unsustainable.

If Persson is upfront about the company needing to grow (undoubtedly to keep shareholders happy), then all of the "conscious collections" in the world can't do a thing for sustainability.

As long as the fast fashion business model remains the same, any attempt at a more sustainable future is simply a wash.

As Marc Bain of Quartz points out, "a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill."

So, why bring this up now when I've already argued this point before?

Last week, H&M launched a film campaign with actress Olivia Wilde to debut its new "Conscious Exclusive" collection for 2015.

And I'm here to say, don't buy into the hype.

In an article from Fast Company, writer and editor Ariel Schwartz highlights an alarming study about consumer perception.

When over 1,000 people were asked to name the single most socially-responsible company they could think of, Chik-fil-A, Wal-Mart, P&G and Apple made the top 20 list.

That's all to say that millions of dollars go into creating brands that communicate a certain consumer assumption -- despite what's actually going on in the supply chain and behind the scenes.

H&M's "Conscious" print campaign is running the same month as the second-annual Fashion Revolution Day campaign and its film push with Olivia Wilde is starting the week leading up to Fashion Revolution Day on April 24. Coincidence?

If H&M wants consumers to categorize it with a global fashion revolution that is pushing to make change in the industry, then they're doing a really good job. That kind of positioning isn't happenstance.

In the past, H&M has been given international ethics awards, despite manufacturing about 25 percent of its clothing in factories in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is the lowest in the world.

It's been named one of the best companies to work for despite 850,000 of its textile workers not being paid a fair and living wage.

And although H&M is one of the largest buyers of organic cotton, it still only accounts for 13.7% of its total garment production.

In 2015, H&M will produce over 600 million new garments. That's an increase of 50 million articles of clothing from 2011. It will expand its physical locations by 10 to 15 percent every year, requiring the use of energy-intensive resources.

Each week, H&M will debut a new "season" of trends catapulting the old fashion calendar of 2-4 seasons per year into 52 micro-seasons.

All the while, the average American will continue discarding over 68 pounds of clothing into landfills annually.

Critics of mine will say, "Well, at least H&M is doing something. We can't fault them for trying."

To that I say:

If H&M was truly serious about sustainability, then it would focus on changing its business model -- not on making more clothing under the guise of a feel-good name.

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an accelerator program that takes sustainable apparel companies from idea to launch. Join a growing movement of fashion changemakers here.