04 Oct

How Ethical Is H&M?

Swedish retailer H&M is one of the world’s most recognisable fast fashion brands. It’s the second largest retailer in the world, just trailing behind Inditex (the owner of Zara), and operates in 62 countries.

H&M has long been the target of widespread concern about the impact of fast fashion on the environment, and the workers who make our clothes. H&M claims to be moving towards more sustainable policies, but just how ethical is it?

One step forward…

H&M has pledged to become 100% ‘climate positive’ by 2040 by using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency in all its operations. This includes a commitment to making the first two tiers of its supply chain climate neutral by 2030. It has also pledged to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030. It’s great that H&M is emphasising sustainability, but these are only targets, and 2030 is still some time away.

H&M has also been named as one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute.

One step back

While the company has made definite progress on its 2013 commitments to address labour issues, it has come in for some recent criticism. In 2018, factories that supply H&M were named in reports by Global Labour Justice detailing abuse of female garment workers. And earlier this year labour rights organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign pointed out that H&M has not delivered on its 2013 promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018.

So how does H&M rate on the Good On You app?

Planet

H&M is taking a few positive steps to reduce their environmental impact, yet there is room for improvement. H&M is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, offers a recycling program where you can return clothes from any brand in-store, and as we’ve seen, it has set some positive targets in its Sustainability Report. It uses renewable energy for part of its supply chain and aims to eliminate hazardous chemicals and solvent-based glues in the manufacturing of its products by 2020. The brand was among the first to stock ‘Conscious’ sustainable fashion collection in its stores.

On the other hand, the majority of the materials it uses are not eco-friendly. The brand still operates under an unsustainable, fast-fashion model.

People

H&M has made some commendable improvements on their labour policies in recent years. Based on the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, H&M received the top score of ‘A+’ for its Supplier Code of Conduct, although the code only applies to part of its supply chain. It also received a score of ‘A+’ for its transparency and ability to trace most of its suppliers. H&M audits most of the facilities in its supply chain over a two-year period.

Only between 1% and 25% of traced facilities across H&M’s supply chain pay a living wage to their workers. On another bad note, H&M only implements some of the available worker empowerment initiatives at the final manufacturing stage and even fewer at the raw materials and inputs stages of production.  That means not enough of its facilities have collective bargaining or the right for workers to make a complaint.

Animals

H&M is heading in the right direction by using wool from non-mulesed sheep and banning the use of fur, angora and exotic animal and skins. It does, however, use leather specifying where it’s sourced; this means it cannot guarantee animal welfare.  The down it uses is accredited by the Responsible Down Standard.

Overall Rating: It’s A Start

We rate H&M ‘It’s A Start’ based on information from the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report and our own research. Despite the fact that H&M is setting sustainability targets and has adopted some positive practices and policies across the board, it is still the world’s second biggest producer of fashion products designed to be worn just a few times and then discarded.

At the end of the day, H&M is still very much a part of the unsustainable fast fashion industry. Its promotion of ‘disposable’ fashion and constant rotations of new trends and products has a huge environmental impact. An increasing amount of cheap clothing ends up in landfill after a few wears due to these reasons.

The clothing manufacturing process regularly involves the use of toxic dyes, solvents and pesticides, is responsible for significant carbon emissions and uses much of the world’s fresh water and land resources. While this is an industry-wide problem, there are more clothes pumped through the system by the fast fashion brands –and it’s not clear the sustainability initiatives of H&M are enough to compensate.

An analysis of the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report suggests the clothing industry is responsible for about 5.4% of the world’s carbon emissions, which places it around 5th of all industries!

So, while those cheap price tags may be tempting, they are often a good indicator of the poor quality of the materials. They also highlight that the people making those clothes are working in conditions that while mostly improving are not where they should be.

See the rating.

Good Swaps

H&M offers a ‘Conscious’ collection, but we recommend investing your hard-earned dollars in clothes that are not only ethical and sustainable but are also timeless in style, will last you a lifetime, and are made by brands that are designed to be sustainable and ethical from the ground up. Here are some brands that rate ‘Good’ or ‘Great’ by us!

Reformation

Rated: Good

LA-based Reformation creates killer clothes that don’t kill the environment. The brand also ensures that a large proportion of its suppliers pay a living wage. Go Reformation!

See the rating.

Shop Reformation @ Farfetch.

Shop Reformation.

Kowtow

Rated: Great

Kowtow uses organic, fair trade cotton and non-toxic dyes to produce its clothes. It designs elegant, timeless womenswear, and also has a range of ceramics.

See the rating.

Shop Kowtow @ Ecoture.

Shop Kowtow @ We-Love.

Arkins

Rated: Great

Arkins is a womenswear brand dedicated to producing comfortable, quality, sustainable fashion in Manhattan.

See the rating.

Shop Arkins.

Editor's note: This article was first published in 2017 and updated by the Good On You Editors in March 2019. Feature image via H&M. Additional images via H&M Instagram and the brands listed. Good On You has big plans for ethical fashion in 2019! To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

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