Recycle, Reuse, and Don’t Forget to Keep on Buying More of Our Products— H&M’s Biggest Greenwash Yet

Tabitha Whiting
Oct 16, 2020 · 5 min read

H&M, what are you playing at?

I’ve written previously on the truth behind H&M’s Conscious collection — a range of clothing from this fast fashion giant which claims to be ‘sustainable style’. Recently they’ve been making an even bigger noise about their so-called ‘sustainability’ credentials, splashing out on advertising campaigns and social media posts that give the impression to the unsuspecting customer that H&M are a company that truly cares about our planet. So let’s explore that.

First up is their recent advert, titled ‘Let’s change. For tomorrow’ which focuses on the materials they use in production — reycling, reusing, and using organic and sustainably sources materials.

Here’s a transcript of the advert’s voiceover:

The world has changed. What we do today will define our tomorrow. We will keep changing how we design, how we choose the materials, and how we make our products. We’re turning using into reusing and recycling. Already more than half of our materials are recycled, organic, or sustainably sourced. By 2030 it will be 100%.

Let’s change, for tomorrow.

And then I spotted a series of stories on their H&M home Instagram highlighting their organic cotton towels in the context of sustainability. The ordering here is laughable.

How to be a sustainable queen 101. Number 1: recycle instead of sending to landfill. Number 2: reuse items as long as you can to reduce waste. Number 3: make sure you buy as many products from H&M as you possibly can.

Oh, wait… that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

As you can see, the focus in H&M’s current communications is on recycling and reusing, as well as organic and sustainably sourced materials. Now, they’re right that we should be recycling and reusing. But place that fact in the context of the fast fashion world, and there’s suddenly a glaring problem.

Fast fashion is inherently unsustainable.

It’s in the name. The fast fashion business model relies on churning out new styles of clothing constantly, pushing trends to urge customers to buy more and more clothing to meet these trends.

The industry churns out over 1 billion items of clothing every year, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent at the same time, accounting for 5% of global greenhouse gases.

A model like this relies on waste. Brands like H&M pile their clothes and styles high, and those which don’t make the cut of consumer approval are discarded. There’s even discarding before this point, with defective clothing never even making it to store before it is burned as waste — as much as 12 tonnes a year.

So whilst they may be incorporating more recycled material, its a drop in the ocean compared to their environmental impact and use of resources. If H&M is burning 12 tonnes of clothing that never got further than the factor per year, you can imagine the vast amount of clothing they’re producing every year — and the material, resources, and energy required to do so. Even if 50% of that is recycled material, it still represents a hugely wasteful industry.

Statistics suggest that it would take fast fashion brands like H&M 12 years to recycle what they produce in just 24 hours.

On top of this, H&M’s track record with recycling makes me doubly dubious. They’ve had an in-store clothes recycling service for a while, and you can see that they reference this in their Instagram stories above. You drop off a bag of clothes or other materials to recycle and they give you £5 off your next purchase with them. It’s a blatant marketing technique, drawing you in with their eco-friendly recycling process, only to entice you to buy more things from them with a voucher. It’s also very unclear what happens to these bags of clothes.

H&M’s other claim in these adverts is around organic materials. This tends to be a fallback for fast fashion brands, as it’s fairly easy to switch from cotton to organic cotton without impacting your bottom line — whilst being able to brand it as an environmentally conscious decision. I wouldn’t be surprised if their 50% of material being recycled/reused/organic was mostly organic.

Organic cotton is often portrayed as an eco-friendly option compared to synthetic alternatives, but cotton is actually an incredibly thirsty plant, using a hell of a lot of water to grow. Organic cotton is the same, just minus the pesticides. It takes 20,000 litres to grow 1kg of cotton, which is the amount needed to make one t-shirt and one pair of jeans.

So, then, what’s really going on here?

What’s going on is that H&M — and other fast fashion brands, they’re certainly not along — have clocked on to the fact that their customers are becoming more and more aware of the climate crisis and its impacts, and its changing the way that they shop. They know that customers are more likely to purchase items that are marketed as sustainable.

There’s research behind this. A review of consumer sales between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at the Stern Center for Sustainable Business, of New York University, found that products that were highlighted as ‘sustainable’ would sell much faster than products which were not.

It’s clever marketing, responding to consumer trends and shaping their products in a way that will keep sales coming in.

But it is not environmentally-conscious clothing. It’s marketing which gives the impression of environmentally conscious clothing, to keep you buying their products, and keep their sales coming in. Profit is what truly lies at the heart of H&M’s ‘sustainable style’ marketing strategy.

Fast fashion will never be sustainable.

Let me say that again so it really sinks in. Fast fashion will never be sustainable. And H&M, you need to stop the greenwashing and accept that you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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