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H&M, The Ethical Fast Fashion Leader?

Words by Leon Kaye

H&M, the global fast fashion leader, has ramped up its sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in recent years. Once an easy target for those critical of the clothing industry’s record on environmental and human rights issues, the micro-seasonal Swedish trendsetter can provide a bevy of statistics that would make most CSR professionals blush.

Concerned about all those cheap denim jeans and t-shirts? H&M is the world’s largest user of organic cotton. But all that cotton needs water, correct? The company conserved  13.2 million gallons (50 million liters) as it streamlined its denim manufacturing. Disdain toxins or fearful of that frock unthreading after one wash? The company conducts half a million quality tests annually. Reaching for that glass ceiling? In an industry where companies are still often dominated by men, 71 percent of management positions at H&M are women. Am I doing the right thing by buying something made on the cheap in Bangladesh? At least 300,000 workers there have been educated on their rights. What about the children? H&M has donated $4.5 million to its All for Children project, a partnership with the United Nations.

And those numbers will get even better. This week H&M will release its 2011 sustainability report, and the sneak peek given to The Observer’s Lucy Siegle is promising. The numbers at first are daunting. With 2500 stores in 44 countries, H&M consumes a lot of resources for the 80 billion garments made from virgin resources. That number will only increase with the 10 to 15 percent growth the company expects in the coming years. As for those workers in Bangladesh, your spontaneously bought outfit will be far cheaper than that night on the town since they are paid on average about $43  a month.

In the meantime, more improvements are on the way starting with the 2.5 million pairs of shoes made with low-impact water solvents. Recycled polyester made out of 9.2 million plastic bottles will be part of the chain’s new ethical clothing line. The company says it is on target to use only 100 percent organic cotton throughout its supply chain by 2020. Meanwhile 100 employees are working solely on CSR, and 75 of them audit H&M suppliers.

Clearly the company is not perfect. Any large company with such a vast supply chain will run into factory owners, skittish about transparency, who say YES to labor rights and environmental stewardship, only to do NO and hope they do not get caught. And not all of the clothes are “eco,” including the dishy David Beckham undies line. Educating workers about their rights sounds forward-thinking, but most people in any country do not want to watch a DVD that reminds them about their situation in a country where justice and accountability are exotic concepts coming from far away wealthy lands. And is it really necessary to have a new fashion season every few weeks? The combination of cheap manufacturing consumers’ demands for the latest and greatest look can land a company like H&M or Zara in trouble.

It may be too early to give H&M a free pass and applaud them for sustainability. But the company has taken many huge steps quickly. And if that sends a signal to more companies that they have got to get their act together and do better, then H&M is moving in the right and more responsible direction.

Leon Kaye, based in California and who has recently returned from the Middle East, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo of H&M at Dubai Mall courtesy Leon Kaye.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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