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Is H&M Serious About Making Fashion Sustainable?

Raz Godelnik
| Friday May 2nd, 2014 | 2 Comments

H&MA couple of weeks ago, H&M released its 2013 sustainability report. At the beginning of the report, CEO Karl-Johan Persson wrote the following:

“At H&M, we have set ourselves the challenge of ultimately making fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable. We want to help people express their personality and feel proud of what they wear. I’m very excited to see the progress we’ve made so far and how this will help us to make you an even better offer – and create a more sustainable fashion future.”

You can take this statement with a grain of salt, especially after the tragedy in Bangladesh last year and given that it comes from the CEO of one of the world’s largest fast fashion retailers. Still, I think it’s also important to read what H&M does to make fashion sustainable. But before diving into the report, I was curious to see what Persson wrote last year, in H&M’s 2012 report, which was published shortly before the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh. Here’s what I found there:

“At H&M, we think of sustainability as a word of action. It’s an ongoing journey full of heart, drive and passion with sincere direction, constantly pushing the boundaries. We take a long-term view of our business. Looking beyond short-term profits and investing in sustainability makes good business sense – and is quite simply the right thing to do.” – Karl-Johan Persson, CEO

Shortly after, 1,129 garment workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh — putting this statement in perspective. Apparently though, the theme in these statements hasn’t changed – H&M is on a journey derived by a clear mission of making fashion more sustainable. Now it’s time to dive into the report and see if this vision has merits.

The report itself outlines H&M’s progress in 2013 and focuses on the company’s most important Conscious Actions (“Conscious is the name for everything we do for a more sustainable fashion future,” H&M explains in the report). These actions are presented through the company’s seven commitments: Provide fashion for conscious customers; choose and reward responsible partners; be ethical; be climate smart; reduce, reuse and recycle; use natural resources responsibly; and strengthen communities.

As expected the report is filled with figures showing progress. Some of them are very clear — for example, 15.8 percent of the company’s cotton now comes from more sustainable sources (2012: 11.4 percent). Some of them not so much —  3,047 tons of no longer wanted garments collected.  Is it a lot or not? While the company provides a reference point – “that’s as much textile fabric as in about 15 million T-shirts,” it’s still not clear if this figure represents an impressive achievement or just a little progress.

You might wonder why we should ask for more clarity with such numbers – isn’t it enough to know that H&M collected from its customers the equivalent of 15 million T-shirts last year? Well, I believe the answer is no, and the reason is that this recycling program is at the heart of H&M’s efforts to build a closed-loop system, making thus its business sustainable – “It’s the quickest and easiest way for our industry to dramatically reduce how many resources we use,” H&M explains on its website.

So given that H&M sells more than 550 million garments annually (2011 figures) it would be helpful if the company would give a clearer perspective on what 3,047 tons actually mean in terms of its short-term goal “to prove it is possible to ‘close the loop’ on textile production by eliminating waste and decreasing the environmental impact of the fashion industry.” So is it possible or not?

The lack of clear reference points is a recurring theme throughout the report. In other words, it’s really difficult to know if the progress the company has made in 2013 is good enough. Take for example the following achievements outlined on the second commitment – “Choose and reward responsible partners”:

  • Fair living wage roadmap launched, enabling suppliers to pay higher wages to their workers.
  • 894,975 workers in Bangladesh and India have been educated about their rights since 2008.
  • First brand to sign the Accord for Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh.

These steps sound great, but I really don’t know what the value of the education H&M provides to workers is and to what degree it improves their working conditions, and I’m also not sure whether the company’s planned fair living wage is really fair. What I’m missing here is another voice — of a stakeholder group maybe — that would provide a more objective perspective on these steps, telling us for example that H&M indeed deserves kudos for the leadership role it played in signing the accord. But also, as the New York Times reported, H&M was, at first, reluctant about the accord and did it apparently only after it was pressured to do so.

The bottom line is that H&M seems to be genuinely interested in sustainability, but it’s still not clear from this report if the company’s efforts so far are substantial or incremental. In other words, you won’t find in this report an answer to the question of whether or not fast fashion can really be sustainable.

Oh, and one more thing – dear H&M friends, do you really need to include in your report statements like “It breaks our hearts to see fashion end up in landfill”? You’re H&M after all, not Patagonia.

Image credit: SimonQ, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Jacquelyn Cyr

    Personally, I think the fact that they’re trying across the board means something. There are an awful lot of brands doing a lot of marketing talk and taking far less action. I think complaining that it’s not enough just makes other companies less likely to get started – change doesn’t happen in swoops, it’s the result of small steps.

  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    A good look at a complicated problem. Considering how recently Rana Plaza was I’m still inclined to give these guys some credit in terms of coming up with what “meaningful” progress actually is. It’s going to take a while!