If you’ve walked into an H&M store lately, you might have noticed more green.
The walls are plastered with posters about recycling and renewable energy. There are big bins by the cash register for old clothes. Signs on the racks promise “organic cotton,” and tags on the clothes tell you where they were made.
It’s all part of “H&M Conscious,” the brand’s effort to give H&M a new image as a sustainable company. They’re starting to offer sustainably made pieces year round, and launching a new Conscious Exclusive collection of high-end, environmentally friendly pieces each year.
“We are committed to showing that sustainable fashion has a place on the red carpet as well as making it part of our daily offer in our stores,” H&M’s website said. “One of our goals is for all cotton in our range to come from sustainable sources by 2020.”
A noble goal, indeed.
But before you get swept away by all the feel-good messages and ideas, what H&M isn’t telling you is that they’re one of the biggest reasons we need sustainable fashion in the first place.
In the past 20 years, the amount of textile waste in the US has gone up 400 percent.
That’s largely thanks to what’s called “fast fashion.” Brands like H&M, Forever 21, Zara and Topshop have encouraged us to buy more clothes by making them cheap and cycling through trends faster.
In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline credits Zara for creating this model by stocking its stores with new deliveries twice a week.
Then H&M and Forever 21 started getting daily shipments, and Topshop started introducing 400 new styles a week. It’s crazy.
So after reading about these things the last several weeks, you can imagine my surprise when I saw H&M’s “sustainable” signage at the mall. It’s like they set a building on fire, and then put the fire out, and now they want us to thank them for it.
And it’s actually working.
I stumbled across a Greenpeace International campaign not only praising H&M and Zara for their “green” efforts — but actually calling them the future of ethical fashion. So what gives?
A few years ago, Greenpeace reveled the ugly truth of what fast fashion stores like H&M were actually doing to the environment.
It released an investigative report called Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up, which tested 141 items of clothing from 20 brands and found that items from every one of those brands contained traces of hazardous chemicals.
Among the offenders were Inditex (owner of Zara) and Hennes & Mauritz AB (owners of H&M). The report even called out fast fashion for overproducing clothes and contributing to global waste.
“From the early 1990s brands looked for ways to increase their profits by encouraging consumers to buy more clothes and to buy them more frequently,” the report said. “Brands such as Zara, H&M, Gap and Benetton focused on speeding up fashion cycles by presenting trends to consumers mid-season…. A key part of this high turnover in clothes is their disposability…. This combined with poor quality and low prices can lead to a throwaway mind-set and shorter lifespans for clothes — even though the fabric itself could last for decades.”
Right there they outlined the key problem with H&M’s business model: They’re encouraging us to buy more disposable clothes.
And yet, despite that clear understanding of the problem, Greenpeace and other organizations have continued to praise H&M for managing to “detox” their product lines, regardless of their high clothing turnover.
In the most recent installment of Greenpeace’s Detox Catwalk this year, the organization gives Zara and H&M “Avant-Garde” status as “companies that are ahead of the field, leading the industry towards a toxic-free future with credible timelines, concrete actions and on-the-ground implementation.”
It says Zara has exemplary transparency, a “clean factory approach” and a strong commitment to PFC elimination. It says H&M “sets a good example” and has regularly delivered on these criteria as well.
But all of the praise and fuss about brands like H&M and Zara is actually incredibly misleading. Even if they are doing all this great stuff to help detox their product lines, it doesn’t change the (arguably larger) problem that they’re still selling cheap clothes and contributing to waste and greed.
At the root of it, fast fashion’s business model is built on getting us to buy more — all the time. So, unfortunately, the only way for these companies to make a real difference would be to not exist at all, or to entirely change their business models and slow down trend cycles.
Clever campaigns and overzealous praise might make us think brands like H&M are OK and even doing good in the world. But as long as they’re still selling clothes as cheaply and quickly as they are, no signs, awards or “green” initiatives are going to make a difference.
As Quartz writer Marc Bain puts it, “It’s great that H&M is replacing part of its conventional cotton supply with organic, but a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill.”
And that’s what H&M doesn’t want you to be conscious about.