26 Jun

How Ethical Is H&M?

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…

In its 2016 Annual Sustainability Report, H&M 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.

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?


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.


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.


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.

Overall Rating: It's A Start

Rated: It's A Start

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.

Editor's note: This article was first published in 2017 and updated by the Good On You Editors in June 2018. Feature image via H&M. Additional images via H&M Instagram and the brands listed.

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