BUSINESS
09/15/2016 02:12 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2016

Before Buying More Clothes At H&M, Read This

Is it ethical to shop at H&M? The answer is complicated.
H&M has long been the poster child of fast fashion. 
Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images
H&M has long been the poster child of fast fashion. 

This article is part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.

H&M, long the poster child of fast fashion, seems to realize that its industry’s excesses are going out of style.

The Swedish apparel giant is taking strides to change its ways. But are its attempts to recycle clothes and lessen its environmental impact enough to make shopping at its stores an ethically sound decision? The answer is complicated.

H&M sold $25 billion worth of cheap clothes around the world last year. Second only to Zara-owner Inditex in sales, the company is also on the hook for helping to create a consumer culture that treats clothing like food that’s about to expire. The average American now throws away about 70 pounds of clothing per year ― the equivalent in weight to more than 200 men’s T-shirts ― and nearly all of that ends up in landfills. 

Textile suppliers that H&M has worked with heavily pollute waterways in China with dyes and other runoff from their factories. 

After the collapse of the Rana Plaza sweatshop complex killed 1,135 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013, H&M spearheaded an effort to reform the industry ― even though H&M wasn’t directly linked to the disaster. But the company quickly fell short of promises it made to overseas workers.

Recently, however, H&M has tried to improve itself. 

In April, the Swedish apparel giant launched an event it called World Recycle Week, asking people to drop off their unwanted, used or damaged clothes so the company could recycle or refurbish them. The occasion, promoted by rapper M.I.A., served to amplify the voucher program H&M created in 2013 to provide discounts to customers who donated old clothes.

In addition, the 3,600-store chain sells a “Conscious” collection, made using recycled fabrics and employing more sustainable methods than are typically used to make garments.

So, how ethical is it to buy clothes from H&M? That remains central to the fashion-focused second phase of “Reclaim” ― The Huffington Post’s editorial campaign to document and fight the world’s waste crisis ― which launched earlier this month. 

Much has been written about the ethical conundrum H&M shoppers face. Rather than retrace those writers steps, we’ve put together a list of stories worth reading before doing any back-to-school shopping at the fast-fashion giant.

  • Is H&M misleading customers with all its talk of sustainability?
    [Quartz / Marc Bain]
    Conclusion:
    It’s hard to say, but if you’re going to shop at a fast-fashion retailer, H&M might be your best bet. 

  • Am I a fool to expect more than corporate greenwashing?
    [The Guardian / Lucy Siegle]
    Conclusion:
    Be cynical. Even H&M’s recycling week is ripped off from a more sincere grassroots campaign in the United Kingdom.

  • The Myth of the Ethical Shopper 
    [The Huffington Post / Michael Hobbes]
    Conclusion:
    “We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world. ... Behind the 50 demonstrators, a line of 300 customers stretched
    around the block.”

  • The Power of Buying Less by Buying Better
    [The Atlantic / Elizabeth Cline]
    Conclusion:
    The movement of people starting to buy higher-quality, longer-lasting clothing should cautiously give us hope.

  • Inside H&M’s Quest For Sustainability In Fast Fashion
    [Forbes / Lydia Dishman]
    Conclusion:
    H&M is really trying! Let’s give credit where it’s due. 

  • Making the Case Against Fast-Fashion Collaborations
    [The Business of Fashion / Eugene Rabkin]
    Conclusion:
    Don’t expect high-end designer collections at fast-fashion retailers to improve the overall quality of retailers’ mass-produced clothes. There’s still a gaping chasm between high-fashion and fast-fashion quality. 

  • Fast Fashion Is Creating An Environmental Crisis
    [Newsweek / Alden Wicker]
    Conclusion:
    “[W]hat H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.”

  • Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project 
    [NPR]
    Conclusion:
    This isn’t specific to H&M, but it gives a powerful sense of how the globalized apparel supply chain works. The project tracked the production of a Planet Money-branded shirt through its 20,000-mile journey across three continents to get to New York. 

  • Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil
    [EcoWatch]
    Conclusion: 
    Don’t look to solutions from huge fast-fashion companies. Designers like Eileen Fisher and Ralph Lauren are making real strides. 

H&M said it has collected 77.6 million pounds of clothing since launching its recycling program.

“Our ambition is to create a closed loop for fashion, where used garments and textiles are reused, recycled and converted into new fashion,” a spokeswoman for the company told HuffPost. “This will reduce our dependence on new resources and will take us from a linear to a circular economy.”

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