Swedish retailer H&M is a favourite among those looking for affordable, fun fashion. It’s the second largest retailer in the world, just trailing behind Inditex (the owner of Zara), and operates in 62 countries.
H&M recently made headlines when several celebrities including pop star Nicki Minaj wore custom-made H&M outfits at the 2017 Met Gala. Many praised the move, with fashionistas on a budget rejoicing that celebrities are making affordable fashion cool.
However, this new trend of celebrities and Insta influencers wearing fast fashion is problematic. Not only because these fast fashion retailers pay them big money to promote their clothes, but it also encourages the idea of cheap, disposable fashion – of wearing an outfit once and then discarding it because it’s no longer ‘new’ or ‘on-trend.’
Faced with 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.
One step forward…
H&M recently released its 2016 Annual Sustainability Report, in which it pledged to become 100% ‘climate positive’ by 2040 by using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency in all its operations. 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 quite some time away.
H&M has also been named as one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute for the seventh year in a row.
…One step back
The company has shown a few improvements regarding worker empowerment initiatives, auditing and supplier relationships. H&M received an overall grade of ‘B+’ in the 2017 Ethical Fashion Report, the same as their 2016 grade. Disconcertingly, the report shows that H&M has taken a few steps backwards over the past year when it comes to the traceability and transparency of their suppliers.
So how does H&M rate on the Good On You app?
Environmental impact: It’s a Start
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 2016 Sustainability Report, even if these targets are nearly 20 years away. 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.
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.
Labour conditions: It’s a Start
H&M has made some commendable improvements on their labour policies in recent years. Based on the 2017 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.
Somewhere 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.
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Animal welfare: It’s a Start
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 hair and skins, it does, however, use leather and down feathers without specifying where they are sourced; this means they do not guarantee animal welfare.
The Verdict: ‘It’s a Start’
Overall we rate H&M ‘It’s A Start’ based on information from the 2017 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.
Like other parts of the clothing industry, the 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 recent 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.
Discover ethical alternatives
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’ in the Good On You app.
Mara Hoffman delivers colourful fashion pieces that will last you for many years. They carry a diverse collection ranging from dresses and jumpsuits to bridal and swimwear. Some of their products are Oeko-Tex® 100 Standard certified and many are made from GOTS certified organic cotton.
New Zealand label Kowtow makes timeless womenswear that is ethically and sustainably produced from seed to garment. They use only 100% GOTS and Fairtrade certified organic cotton, as well as GOTS-certified dyes. Their employees receive a living wage and many workplace benefits. This includes social security, medical insurance, contribution to house rent and free schooling for their children.
Sorella Organics sell a beautiful (and super cosy) range of men’s and women’s sleepwear and basics including tops, pants, wraps and nighties. Every piece is made from 100% organic and Fairtrade certified cotton. This ensures production and trading adhere to strict social standards. They even have a maternity range for any mothers-to-be.
Looking for ethical basics? Check out our 2017 Guide to Sustainable Basics
Arkins uses eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, linen, recycled hemp. A small team in Manhattan put together designs to meet demand. This reduces unnecessary production and waste. From office-wear to swimwear, their pieces come in versatile colours that will stay stylish through the seasons.
If you’re looking for a pretty pair of cruelty-free shoes, you will love Beyond Skin’s range for both men and women. Their shoes are so cute, your feet will be tapping in joy! Beyond Skin use a variety of environmentally friendly materials. Some of the main resources include recycled rubber resin and a suede-like material made from 100% recycled PET plastics.
Naja is all about empowering women, from the wearers to the makers. They employ single mothers and female heads of households to make their range of lingerie, swimwear and activewear. Their employees are paid above market wages and receive health care benefits.
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This article was first published in 2017 and updated by the Good On You Editors in June 2018.
Feature image: H&M. Additional images via H&M Instagram and the brands listed.