Over the past few years, it has become more and more evident that we’ve entered a new era of marketing. Suddenly, beauty brands like Lush and the Body Shop are pasting the labels ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ on the forefront of their campaigns and disposable plastic straws are looking to become an endangered species. Another company looking to brand itself as eco-friendly is the international clothing giant H&M, but, when their glowing 2017 sustainability report divulges nothing about their less than environmentally-friendly clothing-burning practices, it becomes somewhat harder to swallow their claims.
There is no shortage of information about sustainability on the H&M website: webpage after webpage asserts the company’s sense of responsibility for pioneering sustainable fashion; they claim to be continually striving towards a circular model “where materials are maximised and waste is minimised.” The self-proclaimed “highlights” of their 2017 Sustainability Report include the fact that “recycled or other sustainably sourced materials made up 35% (26%) of H&M group’s total material use”; and that “H&M launched its first garments made from recycled shore-line waste”. It is undeniable that H&M are making a conscious effort to become a sustainable brand. However, it is equally undeniable that this is playing to their advantage in the perpetual struggle to attract consumers.
How many clothes have been burnt across the 62 different countries in which H&M has operations?
Perhaps the first call for a critical questioning of the transparency of H&M’s values came when journalists in Denmark discovered that the company was burning new and unsold items of clothing. After a little pressure from Greenpeace, an organisation committed to “investigating, exposing and confronting environmental abuse”, H&M conceded that the incident uncovered by the journalists wasn’t a one-off event. Not only this, but Greenpeace declares that the company has burnt over 12 tonnes of clothing since 2013 in Denmark alone. If this is the statistic for one country, how many clothes have been burnt across the 62 different countries in which H&M has operations?
In French, there is a word which doesn’t have a perfect equivalent in English: “l’écoblanchiment”. It translates roughly to “greenwashing”, and denotes the practice of presenting an image of environmental responsibility, when, in reality, the main focus is increased publicity and revenue. Is this what H&M are engaged in? Is their entire sustainability campaign founded solely on capitalistic greed?
Is their entire sustainability campaign founded solely on capitalistic greed?
To get an idea of H&M’s sustainability from store-level, I paid my local branch a quick visit over the Easter break. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting – perhaps an advertisement for the clothes recycling scheme? Some glowing quotation from the 2017 Sustainability Report, emblazoned on the wall? However, after wandering in a methodical loop around the store, passing from women’s wear to makeup, shoes, menswear and more, I saw not one mention of ‘sustainability’, or anything remotely related. Lost in a sea of red price labels and endless racks of discounted clothing, I departed in a haze of confusion.
Nevertheless, with so many companies yet to pledge themselves to sustainable production and development, we can’t be too harsh on H&M. Undeniably, their recent Sustainability Report shows that they are making conscious efforts towards protecting the environment and the resources that will be available to future generations; whether or not this is primarily in aid of promoting a positive brand image doesn’t reverse the admirable work that has been done. Despite this, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to ask that the same ethos is recognisable in all the company’s actions – in the cessation of unsustainable practices like clothes-burning, and the visibility of the sustainable mission at store-level. You’ve made a good start, H&M. Now, it’s time to fully commit.