H&M: a Garden Full of Sustainability Promises

Last week Sweden-based H&M released its Garden Collection, a spring women’s fashion line that supposedly is made from eco-friendly materials.  Most of its stores have reported brisk sales:  one woman reportedly drove 100 miles for one of the dresses, which leads one to think that being eco-friendly was not the drive behind snagging that particular outfit.  I visited one store in LA, and the employees raved about the line, saying they were selling fast.  H&M has made a mint from offering collections from big name designers, which often fly out of the store the first day.  The Garden Collection was no different.  But are H&M clothes really a viable option, whether or not they are made from “recycled” or “organic” fabric?

Full disclosure:  I admit that I own a few H&M clothing items as well as some from C&A, a German competitor of H&M that offers a similar price point and demographic appeal.  Clothes from C&A, H&M, and Zara are meant to be fashion forward yet affordable, so most consumers who buy these clothes wear them only a few times.  I will wear a shirt over and over again until it gets ratty or my better half decides I can’t be seen in public anymore, and clearly my fashion habits put me in the minority.  So should we be excited about H&M’s eco-chic fashion line and hope that this is a trend that continues?

I would say no.

H&M has already been caught tangled by reports stating that some of its “organic” cotton actually was grown from genetically-modified seeds.  But even if H&M was completely vigilant about auditing its sourcing (an expensive task that few companies will fully fund), the demand for organic cotton exceeds supply.  To me, the simple question is:  do we really need several colors of the same shirt or dress, and does it make sense to implement manufacturing processes that allow for purchases at such a low price?

Many items in the H&M Garden Collection are made from Tencel, a fabric made from eucalyptus tree pulp.  For the most part, Tencel manufacturing is a “closed-loop” process that minimizes the use of energy, water while emitting less emissions and wastewater than that of other fabric manufacturing.  Tencel fabric, however, does not accept dyes well, so naturally derived dyes do not work well with this textile.  And because Tencel “pills,” or, loses fibers that can make the fabric look and feel like the skin of a peach, enzymes must be applied to the fabric to prevent the breakdown of that material.  Sure, such enzymes can come from a natural, non-chemical source, but again, this requires more energy to create a finish product.

H&M offers customers with a large portal detailing its commitment to the environment, though many of the pages are vague, with promises that they are “working on” improvements such as increasing the use of recycled materials and that they are “gradually becoming stricter” on how they are evaluating their transportation providers.  The company also employs 60 auditors that inspect its suppliers’ factories.  All of this offers a nice narrative for reading; how rigorous H&M really is when it comes to the environment is a question that I cannot answer unless I can shadow a team of employees for several weeks . . . unannounced.

What clothing retailers will not tell you is that the price of cheap clothing goes beyond working conditions and the type of materials used.  Whether or not your cool shirt is made from used plastic bottles or petroleum, it still requires a lot of energy in weaving it, shipping it, displaying it, and washing it.  The occasional purchase is not a problem; but buying most of an entire line and only wearing it a few times is a trend that in the long run is an ecological disaster.

I am not saying this to be an alarmist or to shame consumers; but please think . . . it’s just basic math.  The consumption of all these resources just cannot continue.  There is only so much landfill and second-hand store space to go around.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.