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Global fast fashion chain H&M has made some progress on the sustainability front in recent years, but is it doing enough? This article is based on the H&M rating published in February 2022.
H&M is making progress, but far from perfect
Swedish retailer H&M is one of the world’s most recognisable fast fashion brands. It’s the second largest retailer in the world, trailing just behind Inditex (the owner of Zara), and operates in 74 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. It claims to be moving towards more sustainable practices, but we have to be sure by asking the question: just how sustainable and ethical is H&M?
One step forward
H&M has set a science-based target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It has also pledged to use “100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030”. While these pledges certainly represent good progress if they are delivered upon and it’s great that H&M is emphasising sustainability, they are only targets, and 2030 is still some time away. On top of that, while operating under a fast fashion business model, the brand’s impact on the planet will always be questionable.
One step back
While the company has made some progress for the environment, things aren’t looking so good on the labour rights front. Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, H&M joined the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, successfully working with other brands and labour unions to address health and safety issues in 100s of factories. But they also promised to pay 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018, a promise they have spectacularly failed to meet. Also in 2018, factories that supply H&M were named in reports by Global Labour Justice detailing abuse of female garment workers. Clearly, there is still a long way to go.
So how does H&M rate on each of the three key areas of environmental impact, labour conditions, and animal welfare?
H&M has taken some positive steps to reduce its environmental impact. The brand 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 has a policy approved by CanopyStyle to prevent deforestation of ancient and endangered forests. H&M also uses some lower-impact materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester in some products. The brand was also among the first to stock a “Conscious” sustainable fashion collection in its stores.
On the other hand, the majority of the materials it uses are not eco-friendly, and the brand still operates under an unsustainable, fast fashion business model. And while it has set a science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from its own operations and supply chain, there is no evidence it is on track to meet its target. For these reasons, we give H&M a score of “It’s a Start” for the environment.
H&M has made some improvements on its labour policies in recent years, but overall its workers are not treated ethically enough, which is why it has received an “It’s a Start” rating for people, too. It received a score of 61-70%% in the Fashion Transparency Index, and it publishes detailed information about its supplier policies, audit, and remediation processes. It also publishes a detailed list of suppliers in the final stage of production, as well as information about forced labour, gender equality, or freedom of association.
While the brand does have a project to improve wages, there is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage across its entire supply chain, despite promises to the contrary. On another bad note, almost none of H&M’s supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights. That means not enough of its facilities have collective bargaining or the right for workers to make a complaint. With the pandemic ongoing since 2020, we have learned H&M discloses some policies to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19, but implementation is uncertain.
H&M is heading in the right direction for animals by having a formal animal welfare policy aligned with Five Freedoms and tracing some animal products to the first stage of production. It uses wool from non-mulesed sheep, and down accredited by the Responsible Down Standard. It also banned the use of fur, angora, and exotic animal skins. It does, however, use leather and exotic animal hair, and claims that it will be fully traceable and certified to a credible standard by 2025. Until then, it is at least tracing some animal products to the first stage of production. Thanks to this progress, H&M’s rating has risen to “It’s a Start” for the animals.
Overall rating: It’s a Start
So, how ethical is H&M? We rate H&M “It’s a Start” based on our own research and information from the Fashion Transparency Index: you can read more in our post about what our “It’s a Start” rating really means. 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. Also note that Good On You ratings consider hundreds of issues and it is not possible to list every relevant issue in a summary of the brand’s performance. For more information see our How We Rate page and our FAQs.
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.
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 improving, are not where they should be.
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 leave a light footprint on the earth from the very beginning. Here are some brands rated “Good” or “Great” by us.
Ethical alternatives to H&M