H&M has recently overtaken Walmart as the biggest buyer of organic cotton. The global market for organic cotton grew by 20% and H&M used more than 15,000 tonnes of it in 2010 – an increase of 77% compared to 2009. This is great news for organic cotton, but H&M needs to make many more improvements to its overall CSR strategy.
Why Should You Care About Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton is not consumed. It is usually grown for textiles and cotton seeds, so why should it matter? Although conventionally grown cotton occupies only 3% of the world’s farmland, it uses 25% of the world’s chemical pesticides and fertilizers – this subsequently reduces natural biodiversity in cotton growing areas. A lot of conventionally grown cotton is GM cotton which greatly threatens environmental stability, biodiversity and small farmers.
Organic cotton provides a better deal for farmers not just with lowered pesticide costs and health risks but also economic benefits. Those working with GM cotton have reported skin and respiratory issues. Pollen from GM crops is known to cross-pollinate, thereby contaminating organic and conventional crops. Secondary products of GM cotton like leaves, seed cake etc cannot be fed to cattle: there have been reports in India of cattle dying after accidentally grazing in fields of GM cotton.
According to the latest figures released by Textile Exchange organic cotton showed a 15% growth in spite of the recession. For these reasons and more, the switch to organic cotton is essential and for a major clothing retailer like H&M to lead the way is commendable.
H&M’s CSR Has Had Several Road Blocks
However back in 2010, Organic Exchange reported that H&M was knowingly passing off GM cotton as organic cotton. Leading sustainable fashion website Ecouterre also reported at that time, that roughly 30% of the tested samples contained GM cotton. The contamination could be traced back to India which is responsible for half the global supply of organic cotton which is about 107,000 tons of fiber. Just a few months before this, the New York Times reported that H&M was throwing away bags of unwanted clothes after deliberately destroying them. At that time, they released a delayed statement saying it was their policy to donate unsold clothing to charities. Obviously this one store had dropped the ball, which makes you wonder about the authenticity of their overall CSR efforts.
Last year, their line of cheap clothing was again criticized by Ecouterre. In order to retail dresses for $4.95 and trench coats for $20 they alleged that the Swedish retailer must be cutting corners in other areas. Sure enough, a recent Greenpeace report found toxic chemicals in their clothing.
In spite of these major slip ups, H&M is not entirely insouciant towards environmental issues. By and large, it has been transparent about its sustainability goals and is committed to working with its Chinese suppliers to reduce water, energy, and toxic-chemical use in its supply chains. The company seems to be a victim of bad PR rather than poorly designed CSR initiative. However, in the face of its numerous slip-ups there seems to be a dissonance in the image it wants to project and the image it currently has and that is something it needs to address.
Image Credit: Organic Cotton Denim Jacket. Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©