Honestly I could leave the blogpost there, but I won’t. What I really want to focus on in a bit more detail is H&M’s consistent history of greenwashing. I actually started writing this before their latest move with Maisie Williams (which prompted this post), but now it seems even more apt to publish.
What is greenwashing
Greenwashing is when a corporation markets itself to seem more environmentally conscious than it actually is: putting more effort into marketing to appear ‘green’ rather than actually attempting to reduce impact. The concept isn’t new. The term was officially coined by Jay Westerveld in a literary magazine in 1986, though the practice continues today. In 2021 the European Commission reported that national consumer protection authorities had reason to believe that in 42% of cases of companies making sustainability claims, the claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive.
One of the main factors that leads to greenwashing is the lack of standardised, legally binding frameworks to govern how sustainability is defined and information that needs to be disclosed. Brands have been able to set their own ‘sustainability’ initiatives, marketing campaigns and capsule collections. They’re able to use vague wording, not include measurement criteria, and not explain how they’re defining sustainable and ethical practice.
What results is often selective and misleading pictures of what is being done and whether it’s effective. Corporations can falsely promote themselves as sustainable, while still harming the environment and workers.
So, let’s talk about all the ways H&M has tried to greenwash their lack of sustainability and ethics.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, 93% of brands don’t have evidence to prove they pay a living wage to their suppliers. H&M is no different. Here is a non-exhaustive list of their record on workers rights.
- 2010: 21 workers die and 50 are injured in a fire at H&M factory in Bangladesh.
- 2011: hundreds of garment workers pass out at a Cambodian supplier factory in one week due to poor ventilation and malnutrition. Workers hold a tribunal on working conditions, which H&M refuses to attend.
- 2012: H&M is pressured by Anti-Slavery International to sever ties with clothing suppliers who were sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, due to the prevalence of forced child labour in the area.
- 2013: A Cambodian textile factory that supplies H&M collapses, injuring 23 workers.
- 2013: The Rana Plaza disaster happens. H&M is one of the brands that Rana Plaza supplies; following the disaster they join the Bangladesh Fire Safety Accord, working with other brands and labour unions to address health and safety in numerous factories. They also promise all garment workers will be paid a fair living wage by 2018.
- 2015: Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and Worker Rights Consortium release a report accusing H&M of breaking its promises since signing the accord. Their analysis concludes that H&M has not honoured its commitments to ensure the safety of the workers; with all factories failing to meet mandated timeframes for repairs, and the majority of all renovations still not complete.
- 2017: The Guardian reports that children are employed in Myanmar factories to make clothes for H&M. They are paid as little as 13p an hour.
- 2018: H&M supplier factories are named in reports by Global Labour Justice detailing abuse of female garment workers. More than 540 workers describe incidents of abuse in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka as a direct result of pressure for quick turnarounds and low overheads.
- 2018: H&M fails its promise to provide all garment workers with a living wage by 2018.
On another bad note, almost none of H&M’s supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, living wages, or other labour rights. That means not enough of its facilities have collective bargaining or the right for workers to make a complaint. With the pandemic in 2020, we have learned H&M discloses some policies to protect suppliers and workers in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19, but implementation is uncertain.
Covid has only made the fight for workers rights more pressing. After multiple reports of cancelled orders from brands totally approximately $16bn, H&M was the first major brand that committed to pay for all orders already produced or in production. However, exact details of when suppliers would be paid, or how much, was not clarified.
Most recently in 2021, Jeyasre Kathiravel, a garment worker at H&M supplier Natchi Apparel, was murdered after months of sexual harassment from a supervisor. Since her murder, more than 25 women have come forward to report harassment and sexual abuse at Natchi Apparel. The Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), an independent, Dalit women-led trade union, alerted H&M and put forth their demands. So far the response has been negligible.
H&M has scored highly in the Fashion Transparency Index in the past, (something it likes to brag about) as it publishes information about its supplier policies, audit, and remediation processes on its website. However, this is not the same as operating ethically or sustainably. There is no information on worker’s pay, which still begs the question, how can items this cheap be made without exploitation? H&M argue that they can’t set the wages as they work with suppliers who employ the workers. This is a weak excuse at best, especially considering that H&M had previously promised a living wage for all garment workers, then stopped mentioning it when this promise wasn’t met.
Plus, the transparency index only rates the 250 highest-grossing brands, leaving out countless small brands that are transparent and actually treat people and the planet well. H&M scored highly in areas where they had frameworks and policies in place, not by demonstrating how they deal with issues in supply chains such as forced labour or gender-based violence. This makes sense, seeing as they routinely fail to deal with these issues
The legal side of greenwashing
There is also a legal aspect to greenwashing. In August 2019 The Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) accused H&M of greenwashing, saying it provided insufficient information on the actual sustainability of its conscious collections, which first began in 2010. While the collection may have featured more sustainable materials, such as organic cotton or Tencel, H&M didn’t explain how these were beneficial to the environment.
We found that the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits
The CA said that H&M made general claims in marketing their products as sustainable, but didn’t adequately specify the environmental benefits of garments. For example, the amount of recycled material each one contained.
We consider this information important for the consumer as the clothing is marketed as being less harmful to the environment… the consumers should know if a garment is based on five per cent recycled material or 60 per cent.
This is particularly apt considering that in 2010 lab analysis revealed that roughly 30% of H&M’s certified organic cotton clothing line was cross-contaminated with GM cotton, making them guilty of fraudulent marketing. Nine years later, the CA concluded that H&M’s portrayal of the sustainability of its collection breaches Norwegian marketing laws.
The focus should be on what your company is actually doing to be more sustainable, and refrain from using general terms such as ‘sustainable’, ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘green’
This gets to the source of the problem. Even if you look at H&M’s sustainability reports, the detail is vague. It may state the use of recycled or sustainable materials, but there’s no clear, defined standard for what is considered sustainably sourced. Unlike words such as organic, ‘sustainable’ is not a protected term, which means that it can be used liberally. Recycled polyester, for example, may be better than a virgin option, but it’s still a fossil-fuel material that will break down into microplastics, putting it worlds away from a material such as hemp.
With no external framework, data or science-based goals, brands are able to make up their own rules as they go along.
Returns & recycling
Brands look great for having bring-back schemes now. Very few brands actually say what they’re doing with that once they collect it.
One example of this is H&M’s constant focus on recycling. Their in-store recycle bins have been around for a while now: customers can drop off old clothes, receiving a coupon to redeem in store.
However, H&M sends their donated clothes to I:Collect, who say that only 35% of what’s collected is recycled at all. H&M implies that anything you buy will be handled by them, no need to worry about waste! But that’s not the reality of the situation, and H&M doesn’t currently release information on how much clothing collected from their recycle bins is reused or recycled. According to Newsweek the majority of the clothing is donated to charities or otherwise repurposed, making them essentially a charity shop middleman. In 2019 Business of Fashion reported that H&M had an inventory of $4 billion unsold clothes. When added to all the clothes that aren’t recycled, you have to wonder where these huge masses of textiles are going.
And let’s not forget that in 2010 H&M had to change its policy of cutting up unsold garments rather than giving them away, following a New York Times report. More accusations followed: a 2017 documentary alleged that H&M had been accused of burning 12 tonnes of unsold but usable clothes per year in Denmark alone, while Bloomberg reported that H&M was burning discarded clothing alongside recycled wood and trash at the Västerås combined heat and power station. In 2018, Forbes reached out to H&M to ask if they burned clothes.
The company told me it ‘rarely’ burnt clothes. But what does ‘rarely’ mean? If there is a problem with the chemicals in the clothes that the company is burning, what happens to the environment when they are burnt?
Again we see vague wording used as a tactic of avoidance.
In 2020, H&M was also criticised for plans to make clothes from Circulose, a fabric made from up-cycled clothing and fashion waste. H&M’s clothes would be a 50/50 Circulose/Viscose blend. They followed this with the announcement of the ‘Looop’ machine, designed to recycle old clothes into new ones, before announcing Maisie Williams as their sustainability ambassador to talk about these recycling elements.
As far as I can tell there’s only one ‘Looop’ machine, and it’s in Stockholm, so they haven’t quite solved their textile waste issues yet. Many people have pushed back on all of these announcements. Firstly, because it’s unfair to pay huge celebrities to promote sustainability while refusing to pay your garment workers properly, but also because recycling can’t be used as evidence of sustainability if a fast fashion model continues.
Unless a fast fashion brand slows production rates and stops pursuing relentless growth as its top target, it will always be a greenwash.
The fast fashion model
All the recycled materials in the world can’t address the most major issue: mass overconsumption. H&M is the second-largest retailer in the world, behind Inditex, and operates in 62 countries. The recycling greenwash is an attempt by H&M to continue to push sales, evidenced by the fact that customers are given vouchers when they return clothes. It suggests that recycling clothes – with no actual guarantee they’re kept out of landfill – is a free pass to keep spending on fast fashion. This simply isn’t true.
No matter how many recycling machines you build or how much organic cotton you use, the fast fashion model is still not going to be sustainable. Until production slows and consumers aren’t encouraged to buy far more than is necessary, it will be at a scale that the earth quite literally can’t sustain.
Plus, if a brand still won’t disclose the manufacturing conditions and pay of its garment workers, it means they still have so many contractors and subcontractors that they can’t actually tell you. They can use the excuse of ‘well we don’t pay the wages’ while continually demanding more for less money, unable to truly trace the origins of their product, contributing to oppression, abuse and environmental degradation across the supply chain.
So what can we do?
Beyond the obvious of don’t support H&M, there are larger ways you can be equipped to avoid greenwashing. I have a dedicated post on how I shop for sustainable fashion here, but some top tips can include:
- If a brand releases ‘conscious collections’ but makes no changes overall, don’t trust them. It begs the question, what’s going on with all of the non-conscious ranges?
- If a brand uses a small conscious range to suggest that their entire business is sustainable but is actually profiting off mainly unsustainable goods, it’s greenwashing.
- If a brand’s ‘sustainable’ efforts encourage you to consume more (like H&M’s vouchers), be suspicious.
- If a brand puts a lot of focus and marketing behind one area (eg. recycling) but completely overlooks others (like workers rights) be suspicious
- Looking for external certifications such as Bluesign, Cradle to Cradle Certified, Fair Trade Textiles Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard and Organic Content Standards. Fashionista has made a beginner’s guide to what they mean and who should have them.
- Check apps like Good on You for better brand options.
- Look for data. Sustainable may be a popular word, but many brands use it to avoid giving proper information. Instead, look for facts and figures. Do brands give information on suppliers, factories, working conditions, materials, and environmental work? Do they talk about ways they’re trying to improve? Brands need to demonstrate concrete steps. They need to have science-based targets, specific goals, and plans to implement them as opposed to vague objectives.
- Ask questions. If you want to know more – ask. A smaller brand will usually be happy to tell you, and a brand that has nothing to hide should be able to give detailed information.
- Support small. Instead of large corporations, opt for small businesses local to you, they’ll usually have more control and knowledge on their supply chain, and are likely to be much more transparent with you. Plus, those sales actually support individuals in your area.
- Support those working holistically. Small brands who integrate sustainability into every aspect of their work, including design, manufacturing, shipping, packaging, workers rights, land and water use, and ways they can improve, are going to be much more trustworthy and actually care.
- Vegan doesn’t always equal ethical: brands may market their new ‘vegan’ ranges, but many vegan materials are synthetic and petroleum-derived. There’s every chance they’re just marketing plastic as a sustainable choice.
- For systemic change, support work such as IJM and Anti-Slavery International, while Fair Wear Foundation, Worker Rights Consortium, Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign can provide information on the treatment of factory workers globally.
A lot of change needs to come from frameworks and governance, which is beyond consumer control, but staying informed, spreading awareness and maintaining public pressure is also key to larger change. And in the meantime, don’t shop at H&M if you don’t have to.