Can H&M Ever Be Sustainable?

Can H&M Ever Be Sustainable?

H&M Group (Hennes Mauritz AB) is a Swedish global retail behemoth known for pioneering fast fashion. H&M Group also controls brands such as Cos, And Other Stories, Weekday and Monki. Offering cheap, trendy clothes in well-located retail stores in 69 countries and 43 online markets, it is no surprise that H&M is one of the most financially successful fashion companies in the world, second only in sales to Spain-based Inditex, Zara’s parent company.

Unlike Zara though, H&M are pushing sustainability hard. It began its foray into sustainability in the early 2000s, releasing its first sustainability report in 2002 and publishing them annually ever since. The report tracks the company’s progress against its sustainability targets and key goals. It also records its achievements and challenges.

In April 2012, committing further to sustainable fashion, H&M also released its ‘Conscious Collection’, a line of clothing made from fabrics such as organic cotton, Tencel, recycled polyester and organic linen. It continues to incorporate the latest sustainable textile innovations, such as ECONYL.

Then in 2013, it followed in Nike’s footsteps and became one of the first fashion retailers to make its supplier list public.

In its most recent report, the company reveals that by 2030, it aims to use only recycled or other sustainability sourced materials, and by 2040 it wants to be 100% “climate positive”.

With over 4,700 stores worldwide, roughly 171,000 employees, approximately 800 million customer transactions (for 2017), sales revenue exceeding US $25.191 billion (according to its 2016 annual report) and a business model built on selling low-cost, quickly-produced disposable fashion, we wonder:

Can H&M ever be sustainable?

First, let’s take a look at the history of H&M

H&M was founded in 1947 by Swedish entrepreneur Erling Persson, a salesman in the family cheese business. On a trip to the United States, he was impressed with the way American retail stores sold volumes of clothing at discount prices. Upon returning to Sweden, he launched the Hennes retail business, opening its first store in the Swedish city of Västerås and stocking it with womenswear sourced from independent Swedish designers and local manufacturers. According to the history page on its website, the business focussed on offering “frequently updated” affordable fashion for women. This unique value proposition proved fruitful; the business was able to undercut the expensive department stores and gain itself a loyal customer base of fashion-conscious women.

The business grew successful and in the following decades, it would eventually cater to men, babies, children and teens after it acquired Stockholm-based hunting apparel and fishing equipment business Mauritz Widforss. In 1968, the ‘M’ was included in the business name and it became known as Hennes & Mauritz.

How Sustainable is H&M?
Credit: H&M

With 42 stores located in Sweden, expanding throughout Europe was a natural progression. Hennes & Mauritz open stores in neighbouring countries Norway, Denmark, UK and Switzerland. In 1974, the business goes public and lists on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. In the same year, the business rebrands, abbreviating its name to just “H&M”. From here, H&M sets its sights on international expansion becoming the global fashion business we know today.

The Persson family still controls almost 70% of H&M’s voting shares and 36% of equity. The founder’s son Stefan Persson is chairman and according to Forbes magazine, is Sweden’s richest man amassing a fortune currently estimated at $15.3 billion. The chairman’s eldest son, Karl-Johan Persson, was appointed as CEO in July 2009 and continues to serve in this position.

H&M: Greenwashing its way to sustainability? 

“I don’t believe that providing fashion on a large scale and working in a sustainable way needs to be a contradiction,” states Anna Gedda, H&M’s Head of Sustainability in its 2017 sustainability report.

Gedda would say this, wouldn’t she? It would take a truly courageous corporate sustainability leader to say what many in the fashion industry are thinking:

“H&M’s business model which is reliant on overconsumption of disposable fashion to fuel endless profit growth is unsustainable.”

By not addressing this elephant in the room – that rampant consumerism and relentless pursuit of business growth is the root cause of the industry’s social and environmental problems – H&M continues to attract its fair share of critics.

Critics frequently accuse the company of greenwashing. The company’s business-as-usual attitude to its low-cost, low-quality, high-volume trends-based business model isn’t winning hardcore sustainable fashion advocates over. When H&M launched its recycling initiative in 2016, the jeers from sceptics increased, as the company was seen to be trying to distract customers from the problems of its fast production system with band-aid solutions such as in-store ‘close the loop’ clothing bins.

Lucy Siegle, a journalist for The Guardian and author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? calculated that it would take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste with current textile fibre recycling technology – the same amount it sells in just 48 hours. In addition, H&M offers discount vouchers to incentivise customers to donate clothing, which only fuels more clothing consumption and exacerbates the problems of our throwaway society.

H&M Spring:Summer 2016 Campaign
H&M Spring 2016 Campaign

In spite of this, H&M’s commitment to sustainability is unwavering and the company sees its contributions to the cause differently. In its recent report, H&M’s CEO Karl-Johan Persson states: “We believe sustainable fashion and design should be available to everyone, not only to a privileged few.” He has a point. Much of the current sustainable fashion offerings is neither affordable nor accessible to the mass consumer. By offering a ‘conscious’ range of stylish clothing and implementing sustainability initiatives, H&M is still in a better position than most fashion labels to sway mainstream shoppers over to the ‘green’ side.

But with the company producing hundreds of millions of items each year and sitting on more than $4.3 billion in unsold inventory, any environmental gains won with its sustainability initiatives is quickly erased when its supply far exceeds consumer demand. Rather than simply focusing on initiatives such as closing the loop, H&M also needs to address its excessive production and educate its customers on the environmental benefits of consuming less and wearing clothes for longer if it truly wants to make an environmental difference.

Reading between the lines of its sustainability report, however, and it’s clear that H&M’s first priority – and in fact, the first priority of all companies – is in protecting its bottom line. Any notion of the company encouraging people to consume less is dismissed when one comes across paragraphs such as this:

“Our planet provides us with an abundance of natural resources. However global demands are rapidly outstripping supply. If population growth continues as expected, the volume of clothes sold across the world will triple to 160 million tonnes by 2050. This level of demand would require the equivalent of 2.3 planets’ worth of resources. Put simply, the fashion industry is running out of the natural resources it uses to make products and cannot continue to operate in the same way. At H&M group, we believe that an industry-wide shift from a linear to a circular business model is the only solution.” 

Put simply, encouraging people to consume less is bad for H&M’s business.

Related Post: Ethical Fashion 101: The Top 5 Ethical Issues in the Fashion Industry

On using sustainable materials

One of the company’s key sustainability focusses is its increased use of sustainable materials. “We have set a goal that we will only use recycled and other sustainably-sourced materials by 2030,” Acting Environmental Sustainability Manager and Circular Economy Lead Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten tells Textile Exchange. “There are many exciting sustainable fiber innovations both on recycled materials and bio-based alternatives made out of residues or other sustainable and renewable resources like, for example, grape leather and orange fiber that we hope can replace many of the materials that we use today.”

The company focusses on all the positive things it will do in the name of sustainability, but it should be pointed out that as of today, its continued use of cheap, petroleum-based unsustainable materials such as polyester is still rife and should not be forgotten. These plastic fibres are also responsible for the tonnes of microplastic pollution found in our oceans.

H&M Spring Summer 2015 Campaign
H&M 2015 Summer Campaign

Now H&M is a pioneering member of the Better Cotton Initiative a non-profit organisation that promotes better standards in cotton farming and practices across 21 countries and which counts some of the globe’s biggest cotton users such as IKEA and Adidas as some of its members. H&M reports that 59% of the cotton currently used is “sustainably-sourced” which includes Better Cotton (BCI), certified organic cotton, recycled cotton; and it also sources other ‘eco-friendlier’ materials such as recycled polyester, bio-based synthetics and plastics, responsibly sourced man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCs) such as rayon, and animal-derived fibers such as wool grown to the Responsible Wool Standard (RDS) and down to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). The company’s goal is to use 100% sustainably-sourced cotton by 2020.

The company is the biggest buyer of Better Cotton and second biggest purchaser of certified organic and recycled cotton and markets this point often, but this in and of itself is unremarkable since the scale of H&M’s production and size of its operations means it easily beats any brand in any category it competes in.

The retail giant is also committed to ‘detoxing’ fashion and is a signatory to Greenpeace’s Detox campaign, which calls for fashion companies to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals throughout the supply chain by 2020. As part of its commitment, the company conducted nearly 44,500 chemical tests in 2017 to ensure compliance with the Restricted Substances List.

To ensure the safety of our products and to limit negative impacts on the environment and surrounding communities, we implement one of the strictest chemical management programmes in the industry. Our vision is to lead the change towards safe products and a toxic-free fashion future.” H&M Sustainability Report 2017

Related Post: Eco Fashion Basics: Understanding Sustainable Textiles and Fabrics

On its labour policies

The fast fashion company, like many other global fashion companies, has been embroiled in some labour issues.

In 2010, 21 garment workers died in a fire at H&M supplier factory Garib & Garib which lacked crucial workplace safety practices such as proper fire exits.

In 2011, due to poor working conditions, nearly 300 Cambodian workers fainted in a factory manufacturing garments for H&M; about 100 were hospitalised.

Can H&M Ever Be Sustainable?

Five years ago, when the Rana Plaza building collapsed killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500, the fashion sector’s largest industrial accident rightfully turned the spotlight on the workplace health and safety programs of fashion companies, its production facilities and their treatment of workers. Although none of the factories were supplying to H&M, the company was one of the first global fashion brands to sign on to the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safe workplaces. According to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, as of 2015, 78,842 garment workers in Bangladesh continued to produce garments for H&M in buildings that did not have fire exits.

In 2013, H&M also launched their extremely ambitious fair wage roadmap committing to paying textile workers a “fair living wage by 2018”. H&M published this on its website:

It has always been our vision that all textile workers should be able to live on their wage. We are focusing on our strategic suppliers to start with. Our goal is that all of them should have improved pay structures for fair living wages in place by 2018. This will affect around 850,000 textile workers. Everyone who’s employed by the fashion industry should earn enough to live on – whoever they are and wherever the work. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many of the countries we rely on for garment production.”

According to the business, a fair living wage “should at the very least cover the worker and their family’s basic needs and a discretionary income. This wage should be reviewed annually and negotiated with democratically elected trade unions.”

However, two years after it publicly announced this goal, 6,000 garment workers in Cambodia organised to protest employment practices of H&M and other major global retailers seeking fair wages and working conditions.

It’s now 2018 and H&M’s manufacturing arm has also doubled in size; its supplier factories currently employ a total of 1.6 million workers. So is the company close to achieving its goal of paying its textile workers fair living wages? Of course not; it’s nowhere near it; naturally this failure to make any headway in delivering fair wages to garment workers has prompted public condemnation.

“Over the past five years since declaring their living wage initiative, H&M has been notoriously opaque regarding their plans which has raised questions as to whether their promise was merely a publicity stunt to allay public concern about their fast fashion brand,” said the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international watchdog group for the clothing industry in a statement. According to fashion rating app Good On You, “between 1% and 25% of traced facilities across H&M’s supply chain pay a living wage to their workers.” Clearly, the company has a long way to go.

Still, H&M is making some strides forward, albeit very slowly. Good On You rates the brand “It’s a start” across all key metrics such as animal welfare, environmental impact and labour conditions. Baptist World Aid rates fashion brands on the systems they have in place to mitigate the risk of slavery in their supply chains and in its 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, gave H&M an overall ‘Slavery & Labour Rights Grade’ score of B+. The report noted that H&M need to improve in the areas of worker empowerment and auditing suppliers (as shown in the picture below).

H&M 2018 Ethical Fashion Report Score B+
Credit: Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report 2018

On circular fashion

“Our vision is to use our size and scale to lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion, while being a fair and equal company,” it states in its 2017 report. The company recognises that the old linear fashion system of ‘take, make, waste’ is unsustainable and is investing heavily in the development of a circular fashion system.

“This approach covers how we design for circularity, the raw materials we choose, the production processes we use including energy, water and chemical use and finally we need to expand the lifespan of the products making sure we keep the highest value and use through different forms of re-use models, care and repair, remanufacturing and finally recycling,” Acting Environmental Sustainability Manager and Circular Economy Lead Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten shares in an interview.

To follow through with its circular fashion commitment, H&M have partnered with fashion tech companies such as re:newcell, whose innovative technology recycles used cotton, viscose and other cellulosic fibers into new textile fibers, and Treetotextile, a company developing new sustainable textile fibers based on forest raw materials.

Investment in the development of textile recycling technology is crucial for H&M. Currently, only about one percent of textiles globally are actually recycled and re-spun to create new textile fibres. When the technology becomes available, H&M will be able to increase the volume of textiles recycled and help close the loop in the fashion industry.

So what currently happens to old clothes donated to H&M’s in-store clothing recycling program? Catarina Midby H&M’s sustainability manager for UK and Ireland in an interview with PRI, states that the donations are taken to sorting and recycling plants that H&M contracts with. Everything collected in Europe, for example, goes to a central recycling plant in Germany, and anything that can’t be re-worn and sold in second-hand shops (or in second-hand clothing markets in Africa and South America), is repurposed and turned into such things as cleaning cloths and insulation for houses. According to Midby, about 5-10% of the clothes donated to H&M (a total of 17,771 tonnes of textiles has been collected and processed since the initiative launched) is turned into new textile fibres.

Related Post: Q&A with Camille Reed, Founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference

Recently, when Burberry was reported to have burned almost £28 million of stock in an effort to control its luxury reputation and avoid its out of season, unsold clothing being copied or on-sold in the black market, it was only fair to ask whether other brands were found guilty of doing the same thing, and more specifically, H&M.

Aside from a 2010 incident in which the New York Times exposed that piles of H&M garments were being cut up before being discarded (presumably to avoid resale) and another last year where H&M was accused of burning 12 tonnes of clothes which it profusely denies, H&M doesn’t seem to have a consistent history of incinerating good, usable and wearable stock – that we know of anyway.

“H&M does not burn any clothes that are safe to use,” said Johanna Dahl, head of communications for H&M in Sweden. “However it is our legal obligation to make sure that clothes that contain mold or do not comply with our strict restriction on chemicals are destroyed.”

On reducing carbon emissions

The company’s goal is to become “100% climate positive” across its entire value chain by 2040. It aims to do this by using energy from renewable sources and through energy efficiency programs such as switching to LED lights. According to its recent sustainability report, 96% of H&M group’s electricity came from renewable sources. The business was also able to reduce its operational carbon emissions by 21% compared to 2016. The business is aiming for a “climate neutral supply chain for their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers by 2030”. Its commitment to reducing carbon emissions is appreciated but the hard work is still yet to be done.

Related Post: I Used 4 Different Carbon Calculators to Work Out My Annual Carbon Footprint. Here Are the Results…

On its use of marketing and advertising

H&M spends millions on glossy advertising and marketing initiatives. According to Adweek, the company spent roughly $25 million annually on US advertising although global figures are harder to find. From its annual collaborations with high-end designers such as Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang and Karl Lagerfeld and celebrities such as Beyonce and Katy Perry, and use of social media influencers, H&M’s continued dominance in the fashion marketplace is assured. Which makes the issue of cheap, fast fashion even more problematic since it is seemingly endorsed by cool, popular, high-profile individuals in our society.

H&M Summer 2013 Campaign Featuring Beyonce
H&M Summer 2013 Campaign features Beyonce

Final thoughts

H&M faces some inherent challenges given the scale and complexity of its operations and to expect it to perform as ‘sustainably’ as a smaller fashion brand is an unfair comparison. Given its size, any measurable efforts to reduce its environmental impacts and improve its social impacts is to be acknowledged and welcomed. With that said, for all its touting of its commitment to sustainability, H&M is still a corporation and its bottom line is its number one priority. To expect it to challenge capitalism’s mantra of the growth economy and consumerism is to be in denial of economic reality. Like all companies, it is required to act in the best interests of its shareholders, which often means maximising profits and achieving growth targets.

But unlike other fashion companies, H&M is at least putting sustainability front and centre of its corporate strategy and by doing so, is making it easier for other fashion businesses to follow suit. Some argue that flying the sustainability flag is a clever strategy motivated only by H&M’s interests to future-proof its business. Regardless of its motives, steps in the right direction should be applauded, since a small step for a global company such as H&M equates to a sizeable positive impact.

Personally, its high-volume, low-price business model is nauseating, particularly as it relies on unrestrained fashion consumption and disposable trends to fuel its growth. The business has survived more than 70 years on the back of delivering broad collections, quick trends, accessibility and low prices, but whether it remains successful is dependent on how it adapts to ecological issues such as climate change and meets the needs of the increasingly socially and environmentally aware fashion consumer.

Furthermore, shopping at H&M has never been a part of my DNA and the first and only thing I have ever purchased from the store occurred in 2005 when I was holidaying in New York City and came face-to-face with the retail giant for the first time (I can count the number of times I’ve stepped foot in a H&M store on one hand, so few I still remember each time). My extreme dislike of mass chain stores is rooted in the fact that they sell low-quality fashion trends that encourage people to look, dress and wear the same things (thus creating a tribe of fashion lemmings rather than independently creative style expressors!) is the reason I don’t shop at H&M or any other chain store for that matter.

H&M Conscious Collection 2016 Campaign
H&M Conscious Collection 2016 Campaign

However, for people on a budget and need something stylish, I can see why H&M and, for mindful fashionistas its ‘Conscious Collection’, can seem attractive. The fact that H&M is planning to make affordable sustainable fashion within reach of the everyday consumer is nothing to turn our noses up at. Here at Eco Warrior Princess, we understand that sustainable fashion’s high prices is a huge barrier to customers wanting to shop more consciously. That H&M is making sustainable fashion more accessible to low-income individuals and struggling families is a wonderful thing.

Now if after reading this you have concerns about H&M and don’t have lots of disposable income to spend on fashion but are still keen to ‘do the right thing’, we recommend shopping at thrift stores, charity shops and even trawling preloved fashion on eBay, Gumtree and even local Facebook selling groups. We also compiled a list of more affordable ethical brands for those who are cash strapped (although they aren’t as dirt cheap as H&M).

And if you don’t have time to search for preloved clothing or just prefer high-end or in-season styles, make sure to check out fashion rental marketplaces such as Rent the Runway and GlamCorner.

To learn more about H&M’s sustainability initiatives, visit

Loved this post? You might like this one too: Just How Sustainable Is American ‘Ethical’ Fashion Label Everlane Anyway?

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