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Is H&M Ethical and Sustainable?

H&M got the highest score on the Fashion Transparency Index, but are they really ethical?

Last Updated on June 4, 2023

H&M have spent millions making in their bid to be more sustainable, working with celebrities and influencers on eco-conscious campaigns – but are they really sustainable and do they use ethical practises behind the scenes?

The Swedish brand, which operates in 74 countries and has over 5,000 stores globally, were one of the first to make sustainability a priority – but with thousands of new items being listed on their website every week, it’s important to look at what’s really going on behind the campaign photoshoots and green imagery.

Here, we take a closer look.

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Is H&M ethical?

H&M topped the Fashion Transparency Index in 2020, scoring 71-80% at first place.

While many brands hide the details of their working conditions, H&M publish a clear and detailed list of suppliers in the final stage of production, as well as information about its supplier policies, audits, remediation processes and its policies on forced labour, gender equality and freedom of association.

H&M claim they’re working to improve wage management systems ‘to make sure everybody’s individual skills are taken into account when setting wages.’

According to Good On You however, the brand provide no evidence that it ensures a living wage across its supply chain. It’s also claimed that H&M’s supply chain isn’t certified by labour standards, which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights.

In terms of COVID-19, H&M were praised for paying their suppliers for all orders fulfilled and in progress. They also disclose policies to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of the virus, but it’s unclear whether these are thoroughly implemented.

On the plus side, the brand has been named one of the most ethical companies in the world by Ethisphere® eight times – so in comparison to fast-fashion brands such as Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing, they’re doing well.

Is H&M sustainable?

H&M have made a good start on becoming sustainable. In December 2020, the brand announced it was investing £72million into their Planet First programme, which is ‘aims to find planet positive technologies that will not only look at the circular economy and climate change, but also consider all aspects of earth’s natural support systems.’

It offers Conscious collections, made from sustainably sourced materials and the products dropped off at in-store recycle bins, and it uses eco-friendly materials in some products, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.

The brand has set some positive targets in its detailed Sustainability Report for 2019, while it uses renewable energy for some of its supply chain and has a policy to prevent deforestation of ancient and endangered forests.

H&M model wears Flounce-trimmed dress

H&M’s Garment Collecting programme, which encourages consumers to drop off any unwanted clothes in-store in exchange for a voucher, is the largest in the world since being rolled out globally in 2013. In 2019, the scheme collected 29,005 tonnes of unwanted clothes and textiles, which equates to 145million t-shirts. Read more about it here.

It recently started offering a clothing rental service in its Stockholm store, offering shoppers items from its Conscious collection to borrow. In its flagship stores in Stockholm, Vienna, London and Paris, H&M has launched repair ateliers with whom you can repair or upgrade your clothes.

H&M Canada also recently launched H&M Rewear, a platform where Canadian customers can buy and sell not just their pieces of clothing from H&M but also from other brands. The brand’s marketing head in Canada shared that the initiative is H&M’s second project in the country that promotes the recycling of its products.

Aside from store-related projects, the brand also created the Global Change Award through their non-profit, the H&M Foundation. Now on its sixth edition, the award is given to fashion innovators that help address the earth’s global commons: water, lands, oceans, climate and biodiversity. The five winners will share a grant of €1 million.

However while the brand offer a more sustainable option, the majority of its clothes aren’t eco-friendly. H&M is the world’s second largest fast-fashion business, meaning it offers thousands of new items every week which encourages waste that ends up in landfill. The business model encourages the rotation of fashion trends and new garments, which in turn encourages the public to always want more.

READ MORE: 9 Sustainable Brands That Are Just as Good as Zara

It’s also notable that while H&M has set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions created from its operations and supply chain, there’s no evidence it’s on track to meet this.

The brand came under fire in 2021 after hiring Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as their ‘sustainability ambassador.’ The actor announced on Instagram that she was set to front H&M’s campaign to use only recycled or other sustainability sourced materials by 2030, but instead was met with criticism by followers who accused the brand of greenwashing. If you don’t know what greenwashing is, read more about it here.

The fast-fashion giant was also said to be greenwashing through its claims on its website, according to a study conducted in 2021 on the top fast-fashion websites in the UK.

96% of claims by H&M regarding products such as ‘eco’, ‘low impact’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘recycled’ were said to be ‘misleading’ and ‘unsubstantiated’, according to the Changing Markets Foundation.

In early 2022, H&M launched its first science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) program in the UK. The project is said to be focused on creating sustainable fashion solutions.

Run in partnership with non-profit organisation Stemme, the program hopes to inspire more women and non-binary people to pursue careers in STEM. Networking events and mentorship will also reportedly be offered to those who will participate in the initiative.

In 2022, H&M faces a false advertising lawsuit for allegedly exploiting consumers’ interest in sustainability. The lawsuit claims that H&M used misleading information in its “Sustainability Profiles” to present its products as environmentally friendly.

Feel free to explore our sustainability guides for Zara and & Other Stories as well.

H&M Animal Welfare Policy

According to their Animal Welfare Policy, H&M aim to only source ‘animal-based materials from farms with good animal care, breeding and management.’ It traces some of its animal products to the first stage of production and has pledged to be fully traceable and certified to a credible standard by 2025, which can’t be said for all high-street brands.

It doesn’t perform animal tests on its beauty products and it claims to be looking for alternative materials to replace wool, leather and down.

It has banned the use of fur, angora and exotic animal skins, and where it uses wool, it’s from non-mulesed sheep, and the down it uses is also accredited by the Responsible Down Standard.

However H&M also uses leather and exotic animal hair.

Read their Animal Welfare Policy here.

READ MORE: Can H&M’s Conscious collection ever really be sustainable?

Wear Next Opinion

Wear Next believe it’s important to highlight the negative and unjust practises taking place in the fashion industry. We believe ethics and sustainability are an important talking point to bring about change and we encourage you to contact fashion brands to demand this.

However we understand that sustainable fashion isn’t accessible for every body due to various factors, such as budget and the ability to find confidence-boosting clothes that fit. We will continue to offer you fashion inspiration and guidance to suit every body and budget, while also highlighting the unjust systems at play in the fashion industry.

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