H&M’s Greenwashing

Written by Hanna Kirchberger

Posted on 02/11/2022

Image source: unsplash.com

In today’s world sustainability is important in all parts of our life. This also includes clothing. As sustainability is perceived as increasingly important by our society, more and more clothing brands realize that it is beneficial for them to show that they are ‘green’. Having sustainability associated with their brand, helps attract aware consumers. However, it is questionable to what extent a green label makes the clothing actually sustainable and to what extent it is only used for marketing purposes. The keyword for this is greenwashing. Greenwashing describes the process of making consumers believe that a company and its products are environmentally friendly and sustainable by giving false information and impressions. This means for example claiming to produce products from recycled materials without actually doing so or simply exaggerating. The term Greenwashing dates back to the1960s and shows the “attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products” (Kenton, March 22, 2022).

One example of Greenwashing is H&M. H&M is a Swedish fast-fashion company and one of the world’s biggest fashion brands. In recent years, H&M presented itself as increasingly sustainable and made this new image part of its global marketing campaigns – showing how trendy it currently is to (pretend to) be sustainable.

However, there are many claims that H&M is ultimately initiating greenwashing and thus misleading the public. Despite H&M’s claims to become more sustainable, they never actually committed to stopping using synthetic materials. The problems with synthetic materials are manifold. Not only are they non-biodegradable and therefore contribute to long-term waste, but the use of harmful chemicals also leads to water pollution. H&M’s ongoing use of those materials is therefore extremely problematic. Other ideas, like better recycling methods, also aren’t invested in – although H&M does promote circular businesses and actually stated it wanted to become one.

The circular business describes businesses in which the produced products are eventually used to produce new products, so there emanates no waste. The idea sounds very promising. Let’s take a look at what H&M actually does. First and foremost, there is H&M’s Conscious collection. This collection is promoted as being made from sustainable materials like organic cotton or recycled polyester and thus seems the first step towards more sustainability and the idea of a circular business.

Nevertheless, there are a few problems with the collection. On the one hand, having this one clothing line of organic and sustainable products more or less acknowledges that all other clothing is unsustainable and damaging to the environment. The question arises why this one collection is the exception instead of the rule.

On the other hand, it seems to be very questionable how sustainable the Conscious collection really is, as there are apparently reports stating that the collection consists of more synthetic materials than its main line (72% vs 61%) and thus continues to damage the environment even further.

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The general idea of recycling clothes and making clothes from recycled materials however, is promising. The actual problem is the implementation. H&M has recycle bins in their store that make it possible for customers to get rid of their used clothes and get a coupon for the store. 

While they are thus misled into believing that they found a sustainable way of disposing of their clothes, way less than half of the collected clothes are recycled. The problem here is not only numerical but also the fact that H&M simply doesn’t state how much of the clothes that end up in their recycle bins actually get recycled. 

This misleads H&M consumers into assuming that it might be all of the clothes. Unfortunately, this is not only an issue with H&M. The Economist revealed that globally only 25% of clothes that are put into recycling bins really end up in sorting plants. Most of the clothes thrown into recycling bins end up in landfills.

A further problem with the recycling idea of fashion brands are the recycled materials they use. Instead of actually recycling the clothing, fashion brands like H&M produce clothes from for example downcycled plastic bottles and then promote their clothes as sustainable. The problem with these kinds of clothing is that the fashion industry basically takes material from other industries instead of finding solutions for its own waste, thereby creating even more unsustainable products. In a normal product-to-product cycle (meaning staying in the same material and production group), recycling of for example plastic bottles is still possible. As soon as plastic bottles are used for clothes in the form of recycled polyester however, there is no possibility to recycle them into clothes again. We simply do not have the technology (yet). At this point, plastic that could have been recycled and thus used sustainably, cannot be used again.

Image source: unsplash.com

All of this still doesn’t include the environmental issues arising out of other production steps, like for example the dyeing of textiles. Textile dyeing affects many people and the entire wildlife in areas where clothing production is located since it is a big source of water pollution. And since such production points are mostly outsourced and therefore located in Asia, it is not us, the consumers of fast fashion, that are negatively affected by these production issues. Instead, it is the workers in such production points that are directly impacted and thus suffer the most from it.

And this doesn’t even touch upon the social issue of fast-fashion brands like H&M, including bad working conditions, wages of $0.49 an hour and H&M’s very unspecific claim of paying between 1 and 25% of their supply chain a living wage – living wage probably meaning “enough to stay alive” but it is also not specified.

Thus, all of H&M’s greatly promoted sustainability and climate goals need to be taken with a grain of salt. H&M remains a big fast-fashion company that produces more pollution than it can compensate for through its current sustainability efforts. The only real solution would be to slow down the production – not only of H&M but of fast-fashion companies all over the world. After all, the truth is that we produce way more than we need. And while the goals of H&M as such might be truthful and the company is not necessarily actively greenwashing, fast fashion itself keeps being a problem and H&M doesn’t do as much as it could. Instead, they profit off the ‘trendiness’ of caring for the environment.

To end the article not fully devastated, one could say that there is at least some hope. Even the fact that brands (slowly) adapt to more environmentally-aware consumers is already a step in the right direction. Further, there is (some) truth behind H&M’s claims. In some clothing lines, the brand actually uses organic cotton – fully without pesticides and with less water needed for production.

So maybe we can end this with H&M’s score in the app Good on You:

‘It’s a start’.

 

References:

The Easy Ethical (February 4, 2019). H&M: The Ultimate Greenwashing? https://theeasyethical.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/hm-the-ultimate-in-greenwashing/

Kenton, W. (March 22, 2022). Greenwashing. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp

Pearcy, A. (August 5, 2021). H&M greenwashing is ‘disguising the reality’ of fast fashion. The Big Issue. https://www.bigissue.com/news/environment/hm-greenwashing-is-disguising-the-reality-of-fast-fashion/

Westwater, H. (June 29, 2021). Fashion brands ‘routinely’ mislead the public over their green credentials. The Big Issue. Fashion brands ‘routinely’ mislead the public over their green credentials – The Big Issue

Farooq, M. (July 1, 2021). H&M: Sustainable or Greenwashing? Sustainability. https://sustainabilityweekly.wordpress.com/2021/07/01/hm-sustainable-or-greenwashing/

Ramaniah, Z. (December 12, 2019). H&M’s Greenwashing: Short-Sighted and Unethical. Brandingmag. https://www.brandingmag.com/2019/12/12/hms-greenwashing-short-sighted-and-unethical/

The Economist (2018, November 29). The true cost of fast fashion [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLfNUD0-8ts&t=326s    

Longer, K. (2021, July 11). How Synthetic Products Harm the Environment. Earth Liberation Front. https://earthliberationfront.com/how-synthetic-products-harm-the-environment/ 

H&M careers. Production. Retrieved April 23, 2022, from  https://career.hm.com/content/hmcareer/en_se/workingathm/what-can-you-do-here/corporate/production.html

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