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H&M Conscious fashion collection launches…let the debate begin. Let’s be clear, Fashionistas and Shopaholics are no monsters. Nobody of us actually wants to waste a thousands litres of water just to make a well fitting basic t-shirt. Nobody wants to pollute rivers with endless amounts of chemicals to get the latest denim jacket. Nobody wants to make people work in the most terrible conditions for a cute off the shoulder summer dress.

Fact is that fashion industry does all to hide the cruel side of the business behind a lot of glamour and sequins. And fact is that conscious and smart shopping is still the exception, not the rule. Do not get us wrong! We are not saying that exciting, stunning and high quality eco fashion does not exist! Oh no, we are the biggest fans as we haven proven in our previous features, especially the one where we celebrate our most favourite eco pic, the label Reformation! If you missed it, discover the sexy side of Eco fashion here.

However, to dress up with style and at the same time smart and green, you need to be an insider or at least well informed and guided:

  • WHY SHOULD I START SHOPPING DIFFERENTLY? As said earlier, the fashion industry does all to hide what is going on behind the scenes, especially what happens at the early stages at the procurement of raw materials and manufacturing into textiles. So most consumers are still not aware what they actually support with their purchases.
  • HOW NOT TO COMPROMISE ON LOOK / QUALITY / PRICE: Also there’s a perception that eco-fashion is ugly, boring, three seasons back… in short outdated. Others think it is not good quality or super expensive.
  • IS ECO REALLY ECO? Then you do not really know if a label that says to be an eco label is really eco, there is a lot of discussion on what’s really organic, eco, or green fashion.
  • WHERE DO I FIND ECO? Finally if you are not a fan of internet shopping and do not know the labels, you may find it a mission impossible shopping eco fashion in some cities.

Would it not be amazing if a well known International fashion label that is cool and trendy, with a large choice for everybody and accessible all over the world would be eco and so eco it would get supported by our green hero like Greenpeace, WWF & friends and validated by our Eco-fashion community? This would be amazing, right? Or at least a super facilitator to reach out to a larger target.

So when you hear that a brand like H&M goes Conscious this would help us make the Fashion world a little bit greener and a little bit easier, no? Unfortunately it is not that easy.  You will see as you read ahead that it is true that H&M is doing a lot of great green things which is great. But -and the but is essential- H&M is and stays Fast Fashion. You need to know that it is actually Fast Fashion that makes an already polluting industry even worse. Fast fashion companies copy runway looks and release them very quickly into the stores, plus they release more collections each year than other retailers. The short deadlines and the high amount of clothing put high pressure on the total supply chain increasing the negative effects of the business.

So to shop or not shop at H&M if you are an UrbanMeister? To let you make your own opinion, we propose to you the following: You will read in the following two mini articles. The first one from the perspective of a “Very green Fashionista”, not to call him an “H&M hater”. So for them H&M going Conscious is all Marketing blah blah and not genuine green move whatsoever. The second one told by a “Green mainstream Maniac” valorising the green efforts the brand is doing as his objective is to make green and sustainable go mainstream. Finally we will tell you our opinion and invite you to tell us at the end of the article what you think to continue the debate.

 

Seen through the eyes of a Deep-green Fashionista: Why not to shop H&M

H&M is the second largest apparel retailer in the world, just behind Inditex SA- Zara being its star brand (Source). The company was founded in Sweden in 1947 and today it is going really well for H&M, according to their annual report they saw a +19% sales growth vs. 2014, roughly 23 billion € / 26 billion $.

H&M is a Fast Fashion label par excellence. From the 2 seasons Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter that dominated until the mid 80s, there is not much left anymore. It is actually the designers like Karl Lagerfeld who started adding new collections to the rules of the games from the mid 80s on making 4 to 6 collection out of the 2. But with the appearance of the Zaras and H&Ms the whole thing got out of control catapulting to 52 micro-seasons like in the case of H&M where new pieces are in store each week, at Zara even twice per week.

So, to make it super simple, H&M produces often and produces a lot of stuff and this stuff is getting a lot more. And the problem is that this is happening in an industry that has pollution issues all along its value chain. A simple innocent looking white t-shirt is actually extremely polluting all through his life, from the moment it is growing on a cotton plant, to when becoming a t-shirt, waiting to be purchased by a customer and finally one day getting thrown away. Let’s look at some concrete cases:

 

At the beginning of the supply chain are the “ingredients”, what is wrong with cotton for example:

According to their new and fresh 2015 Sustainability report, H&M is the biggest user of organic cotton. This is great, because traditional cotton is a particularly thirsty and toxic crop: It can take roughly 2.700 liters / 720 gallons to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt, this is equal to what a person drinks in 3 years… . Also it is a crop that uses more chemical pesticides than any other, for example 25% of all insecticides (Source). Not only air, water and soil gets intoxicated, but also thousands of farmers die from exposure to these chemicals every year (Source). So you will say H&M being the biggest organic cotton user worldwide is fantastic. At first sight yes, but according to their freshly released report 31% of their cotton is sustainable cotton. This has increased a lot in the last year and the ambition is to have by 2020 100%, but hey… do not forget how many million pieces they produce in a year, there is an estimate that they produced over 600 million new garments in 2015. So the amount of pieces not made with organic cotton is way too much. Marc Bain of Quartz sharply concluded “a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill.”

And then unfortunately stays the doubt how organic is organic. H&M was cited in an organic cotton fraud where “30% of the tested samples” by an independent German institute contained genetically modified cotton- something which is a no go for organic cotton (Source). This is now dating back to 2010, but fact is that the fashion supply chain stays ubiquitous in particular in countries where governmental control and industry standards are not to the level where they should be, as it was in the case of India where the fake organic cotton was from.

 

Then the raw materials get transformed into garment, so what is wrong with the manufacturing?

H&M does not own any of their factories; it outsources all its production with 60% of production taking place in Asia (Source). We are sure all of you have heard about child labor practices and ridiculous minimum wages, lowest in Bangladesh where H&M is the biggest producer in the country:

 

Even though H&M explains that they are working with the same partners for a long time with tight control, there is still a lot going wrong in this area as showed 3 years ago the most terrible accident in Banglasdesh – H&M even though not producing in the Rana Plaza factory (Source).

On April 24, 2013 the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed and killed 1.134 people and injured thousands, sadly considered the most terrible industrial accident that hit the fashion industry. The catastrophe revealed how awfully cruel and dangerous the workplaces within the garment industry in Bangladesh were. The good thing is that the disaster aroused so much public interest and media attention and consequently led to many important preventive safety measures.

H&M was the first to sign a legally binding contract that was one of the results following the accident to help finance improvements in the factories in Bangladesh. In last October 2015 criticism arose that despite their promise to help create a safe and sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh H&Ms actions were totally behind schedule, in many cases lacking the most urgent and lifesaving fire safety measures and risking daily the lives of ten thousands of people and a second Rana Plaza like disaster right round the corner. (Source).

Samantha Maher of the Clean Clothes Campaign clearly pointing the finger at H&M “If only H&M was willing put the same energy into actually meeting their much lauded sustainability commitments as they do into promoting them, we may well be closer to seeing a safer garment industry in Bangladesh”.

But this is not all.

 

Fashion Revolution week vs. H&M Recycle week

To commemorate the terrible accident, pledge for more transparency and create a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry, the Fashion Revolution movement was started 3 years ago. Fashion lovers, bloggers and celebrities in 86 countries are asked this year to show their support with a ‘label selfie’ during the Fashion Revolution Week starting this Monday April 18 – 24, 2016:

  1. Show your clothing label. You could turn your clothes inside out to make more of a statement.
  2. Follow that brand on social media with this message: “I want to thank the people who made my clothes, @brand #whomademyclothes?”

In a week-long series of activities and events, supporters around the world will challenge global fashion brands to demonstrate commitment to transparency across the length of the value chain, from farmers to factory workers, brands to buyers and consumers. On top of the digital action, there are also local action that you can check out clicking here.

But instead of supporting this global movement uniting around an annual campaign, H&M does at the same time their “World Recycle Week”. Starting Monday April 18, 2016 they are organising one week with the ambition to collect 1.000 tons of unwanted garments. Yes, the fast reader got it… exactly at the same time as the World Revolution Week.

After the clothes are collected in the stores, they are shipped to one of seven sorting plants to become either re-worn, re-used or recycled. To make as many people as possible aware of “World Recycle Week”, and to collect as many unwanted garments as, H&M has teamed up with M.I.A. and other celebrities, watch the campaign video here:

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Bloggers and others will also film re-haul clips, showing the pieces they will recycle during World Recycle Week. The objective is honourable as explained in the following by Anne Gedda, H&M’s Head of sustainability. “World Recycle Week” is about changing people’s behavior when it comes to caring for their clothes, to make sure that no fashion goes to waste.” An there is a need for this as unfortunately in the United States still 85% of all of discarded textiles goes to landfills. However, not very logical or let’s call it sustainable is the fact that they offer at the same time a voucher to buy more clothes… Ahhhh… . Ethical Fashion blogger Anna from “Follow made right (here)” points out correctly that the first part of Sustainability is to reduce and reuse and only if this is not possible recycle. Reduce and reuse is not something that suits the H&M logic as they live on frequent consumer visits and purchases and not-the-best-quality makes it almost impossible to wear the clothes longer than a couple of months.

But why use the same week as the Fashion Revolution Week which is on since 3 years already? The World Recycle Week is not new, actually H&M accepts recycled clothes against vouchers all year long as I was told in the Parisian H&M between Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. Plus remember we explained earlier H&M being the world’s largest producer of garments in Bangladesh… Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution reacted in a press statement to H&M action in the following way “This week, of all weeks, H&M should be working in solidarity with the rest of us to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. It should be a time for us all to honour garment workers, those who have died in all industrial tragedies in the garment industry and those who are still suffering in the fashion supply chain today.” Apparently H&M responded and offered to choose another week for the future. However, this is not the first time. Already last year their “Conscious” communication campaign was running in parallel to the Fashion Revolution Week. Shannon Whitehead, mentor to sustainable fashion start ups, doubts that this is coincidence and seems to suggest that this is rather a well chosen timing to green the opinion we have of them. So no, do not shop at H&M, Fast Fashion can never be genuinely sustainable, as volume cannot just be united with respectful and careful use of resources.

 

Seen through the eyes of a H&M Follower: Why to shop H&M

H&M has definitely learned its lesson, screen its entire supply chain and has taken Sustainability serious. Critics need to look at the commitments and strategic partnership that have been done in the background and not focus on the marketing campaigns which are for the consumers to make green fashion mainstream. H&M has initiated important change together with the references of Sustainability to start changing the rules of the fashion game:

 

WWF and H&M

In March 2016, WWF and H&M announced a five year global partnership continuing their duo started in 2013. Thanks to their previous partnership they have contributed to more sustainable water management in China and Bangladesh. Many industries are guilty of using large amounts of water, but the problems with fashion industry is particularly tricky: not only do the raw materials like cotton are very water consuming, but also vast volumes are required during the garment manufacturing for rinsing for example. The rinsing water becomes loaded with dyes and nasty chemicals and end up again through the groundwater and rivers in the total ecosystem. This is why it is important to continue WWF and H&Ms partnership. But this time it goes one step further including common work on climate change, notably the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Greenpeace and H&M

Since Greenpeace uncovered that companies like H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Nike, Puma linked to factories that were discharging hazardous chemicals into waterways in China, H&M has taken action. So well and so fast that it was even praised by Greenpeace (Source). But it did not look that way in 2011 when Greenpeace challenged H&M exposing their “Dirty Laundry”: Not only did their research confirm that H&M has links to polluting the rivers, but also that clothing, including kids clothing, contained nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). NPEs break down into the toxic nonylphenol (NP), can persist in the environment and have potentially dangerous effects as they accumulate up the food chain. Since then H&M has worked on both issues and this earlier than it was aligned. As a consequence Greenpeace praised them categorizing them green trendsetters. Read more about the Greenpeace Detox campaign here.

 

Fur Free Alliance and H&M

We have talked about this before, H&M has committed themselves to not use natural fur. Read here.

 

You know how critical in particular WWF and Greenpeace is, right? They would not highlight H&M if they would not be doing serious stuff, right?

 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation and H&M

But despite these partnership, if they do not profoundly change their business model away from fast fashion their will never make their sustainability ambition in the long run. It seems that there also things going on. For the moment they explain their ambition with targeting “Closing the loop”, so that no fashion goes to waste, but is collected, re-used or turned into something new. For now, according to their latest report they can blend in about 20% of such fibres aiming to go closer to 100%.  However, they have entered a partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation aiming to accelerate the transition to the circular economy.

But these are only a few to point out, actually there is much more going on like in transport privileging ship and rail, in retail switching to renewable energy, … Check out their total action plan here.

 

What does Team UrbanMeisters think?

To all very green Fashionistas, it is worth looking at H&M twice as they clearly are differentiating themselves from other Fast Fashion companies and we think there are 2 key reasons for this as will follow.

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Accelerating innovation, notably sustainable materials

We will soon have a feature on a Parisian eco-fashion designer who is just starting his own brand. Thing is the most tricky part are the sustainable material and they still seem rare and owned by only a few, at least in Europe. This is where H&M can be a strategic player looking at their latest Conscious Exclusive Collection that just came out a couple of days ago to warm up for their “World Recycle Week”. This was the fifth time the company launched an Conscious Exclusive collection that was launched in 2012 as the more high-end version to the accessible “green” collection. This year they demonstrate the role they can be playing in the future.

  • Enabling sustainable material start ups to stand on their own feet like Denimite. 2013 still in a Kickstarter campaign, this material made of recycled denim scraps resembles a sodalite gemstone and is used in this year’s collection as a fashion first:

hmprod

  • Then Lyocell is a fabric that’s made from the fibre of trees that grow quickly and require little water and few pesticides to thrive. There two vesion at H&M: TENCEL®  – a soft, lightweight material made from FSC™-certified eucalyptus and thus great for jersey, knits and woven garments. This material is also used by Purista Eco Fashion labels like Patagonia and Amour Vert. MONOCEL® is the same as TENCEL®, except that it’s made from FSC™-certified bamboo.

Read the other sustainable materials used here.

 

“Make fashion sustainable but sustainability fashionable”

The second key reason why we should give H&M a chance is a quote of Head of Sustainability Anna Gedda. H&M can through their marketing perfection (as long as actions are truly behind) break all the prejudice we cited on eco fashion like ugly, boring, so three seasons back.

Do not get us wrong, the efforts to increase safety of the workers, increasing wages, stopping child work as well as making the supply chain less toxic are key of course! But for us they were must haves anyways. Otherwise we would not even give them a chance in this article and there are other who were as much challenged by Greenpeace in 2011, but did not progress- Greenpeace calling them Greenwashers (Commited companies that are so far failing to walk the talk, like Nike) and Detox Losers (Uncommitted toxic addicts that refuse to take responsibility – like Gap, but also the LVMH group, …).

But they need to speed up slowing down Fast Fashion! They need to go much much further, for a Fast Fashion company change is going to slow. It is not possible that some great pieces of clothing with sustainable material exist next to all of those watersucking, pesticide pucking monsters. It cannot be that they achieve producing first clothing with a closed loop, but then inviting consumers to ride on the over-consumption wave. While we really took time to take a deep look, they need to be careful as we are an exception. The H&M haters will not take this time as long as this parallel universe exists (even in a store run by renewable energy). They will continue doubting how genuine and real their change is. Also, instead of doing all the marketing machine for consumers, take a step and first talk to those who are driving the green movement. We do not mean the big ones like WWF and Greenpeace, but the green bloggers and activists out there. Honor their work, instead of doing a parallel event. Listen to them and you wouldn’t offer vouchers while recycling.

In any case we will keep watching out. For the moment we will assume that they are conscious, but they are not sustainable as fast fashion and massive volume just cannot be sustainable in today’s world and a planet which is already overflowing with fashion waste (literally in landfills).

 

So, after having seen both sides, what is you opinion? Please comment below or on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to continue this controversy issue and contribute greening the fashion industry…

 

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