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

The high-street fashion brand has been accused of greenwashing.

Last Updated on March 17, 2021

Next month H&M will launch another Conscious collection – a line which the high-street fashion brand says is sustainable. The Swedish retailer claim that all of the garments have been created from at least 50% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials, such as recycled polyester and cellulosic staple fiber Naia™. However H&M, which are the second largest retailer in the world, have been criticised in the past for greenwashing – a term defined as to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

While there’s been a lot of excitement about the new collection, the Swedish retailer sell Conscious products all year round across all departments and by 2030, they aim for all their products to be made from exclusively sustainable materials. They offer a recycling service in-store too, whereby customers can deposit their used clothes from any brand to be recycled. Their Looop service, available in their Stockholm store, enables customers to feed their unwanted garments into the machine, where it’s cleaned, shredded and spun into yarn. After just five hours, a new knitted garment is created.

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So it seems like H&M are doing good, right? After some research, it becomes clear that they’re not being as transparent as they claim.

Last year, Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) announced that they were investigating H&M’s sustainability claims under Section 2 of the Marketing Control Act. This states that marketing cannot contain ‘an incorrect or otherwise misleading representation which is likely to influence the demand for or supply of goods’. It’s illegal to mislead customers – and they believe H&M is doing just that.

In a statement to Quartz, deputy director general at Forbrukertilsynet Bente Øverli explained, ‘Our opinion is that H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection and their Conscious shop are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell.

‘Since H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.’

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It’s fair to say there’s not a lot of information on H&M’s website about how they’re sustainable. While they claim that 57% of the materials they use are sustainably sourced, there’s no mention of the fact that they operate under a fast-fashion business model. According to The Guardian, it would take ’12 years for H&M to use up 1000 tons of fashion waste,’ which ‘roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours’. It’s been reported that a hefty percentage of the clothing the brand produces goes to waste too, with 15 tons of discarded clothing being burnt by the Vasteras power plant in Sweden in 2017.

The sustainability section of their website also fails to mention the labour conditions that their garment workers are in. You would think that this would be a particular topic of concern for H&M – a brand that was being manufactured at Rana Plaza when it collapsed in 2013, killing over 1300 people. The chain joined the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord after the disaster, working to address the health and safety issues in factories across the country. But despite this, they still failed to meet their promise of paying 850,000 garment workers a living wage by 2018. It was scored 71-80% in the Fashion Transparency Index, perhaps because almost none of its supply chain can be certified by labour standards, which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, and other labour rights.

At the time of writing, H&M has 720 new products listed on its website. Echoing Aja Barber’s sentiment on Instagram, no sustainable brand sells this many items of clothing in one year – let alone one season. As a fast fashion brand, it’s arguable that there can be no such thing as a sustainable collection.

H&M may be working towards becoming sustainable, but it still has a long way to go. Let us know what you think in the comments.

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