As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.
Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.
We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)
But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.
Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.
So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.
We looked at:
Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru
We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.
We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.
Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)
So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:
1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.
Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?
Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.
Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.
Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.
2. Second, do they have any certifications?
When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.
Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.
Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).
Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.
Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.
Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.
3. Third, how transparent are they… really?
This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?
Let’s stack ’em up.
Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.
So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.
He shared quite a bit of info with us including:
Their code of conduct
The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)
So why isn’t all this info available on their website?
Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.
Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).
This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.
Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.
4. Do they express intention for improvement?
No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?
Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.
5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?
When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?
After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.
Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.
Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.
So what did we learn?
In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.
And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.
So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.
Looking for the latest in eco-friendly fashion? One word: plastics.
H&M announced on Tuesday that it will debut its second Conscious Exclusive campaign — an upscale version of its Conscious Collection program founded in 2012 — which includes formal wear for men, women and children. The line uses recycled polyester made from plastic waste, an estimated eight million tons of which litters oceans each year, and is slated to be available in 160 stores around the globe in late April. The move comes shortly after Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit that reduces oceanic plastic waste, to make running shoes made almost entirely out of discarded plastic.
For the H&M line, the Swedish retailer teamed with Bionic Yarn, a New York-based company that turns plastic bottles into technical yarns and fabrics. The signature piece of H&M’s line is a blush pink pleated gown (which retails for $249) modeled by Natalia Vodianova, who was tapped to be the face of this year’s Conscious Exclusive campaign. Singer Pharrell Williams serves as as Bionic Yarn’s creative director, and has previously teamed up with brands like Timberland and G-Star on footwear and denim that use the bionic yarn technology.
“It’s an excellent PR stunt, for H&M to raise awareness about ocean pollution — along with Adidas’ partnership with Parley for the Ocean,” said Lauren Slowik, outreach coordinator and design evangelist at 3-D printing company Shapeways. “But I like to hope that ocean trash is a finite resource and not something we can build whole industries on. The only real positive I see is that it helps to bring supply chain and production of materials to the forefront on consumers’ minds.”
H&M and Adidas said their ocean plastic efforts were designed to be more than just ploys to attract eco-conscious consumers. Adidas began selling its recycled shoes for $220 in November 2016 with a commitment to making a minimum of 1 million pairs by the end of 2017. It also plans to team with Parley on communication, education and research efforts.
Meanwhile, H&M is attempting to increase its percentage of garments made from sustainable materials, which was reported at 20 percent in 2015. It also asserts to be one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a lofty goal for all cotton to be sustainably sourced by 2020.
However, despite its commitment to sustainability, H&M has still been vague in its transparency efforts and faces ongoing criticism for being a fast fashion retailer that is still using significant resources to produce low-priced goods. Natalie Grillon, founder of Project Just, told Glossy in a previous article that despite the assertions made against the company, H&M has still made strides in efforts like employee wages.
“H&M comes under fire a lot for their initiatives because they do publicize it,” said Grillon. “When really, they’ve made a ton of effort in support of better wages. But then they talk about it a lot, and then they come under fire a lot for anything at all that goes wrong.”
Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
Greenwashing is a term that was coined in the 1980’s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who saw the inconsistency in hotels that did not employ concrete recycling programs but encouraged the reuse of towels by patrons. (PRSA).
It refers to the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of their businesses). It is also defined as the “dissemination is misinformation by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” (Oxford English Dictionary). This practice often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims, in order to “create a benefit by appearing to be a green company, whether that benefit comes in the form of a higher stock price, more customers or favored partnerships with green organizations.” (Investopedia).
Methods: There are many routes a company can take in terms of greenwashing.
Brands can “make vague claims or omit important and relevant facts. They may do this inadvertently, just using information from their suppliers; in the recent case where several clothing companies claimed that they sold eco-friendly bamboo-clothing when they in fact sold rayon produced from bamboo – but processed in a way that uses harsh chemicals and can also release hazardous air pollutants.” (NFA).
Companies may utilize “press releases about green projects or task forces put into place, energy reduction or pollution reduction efforts, and rebranding of consumer products and advertising materials.” (Investopedia). For example, “Ford Motors — like other automakers often castigated by environmental groups for making gas guzzlers and opposing many proposed state laws aimed at fuel efficiency — has been running advertisements promoting its planned lines of hybrid and flexible-fuel cars.” (NYTimes).
Greenwashing also happens when “corporations parrot their environment programs with the end goal of earning profit.” (ABS).
Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry
Many fashion industry labels employ “green” and “ethical” marketing to target “conscious” consumers: H&M’s Conscious collection, made of organic cotton and recycled polyester; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection; Adidas’ Design for Environment gear; Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative; Zara’s eco-efficient stores; and the Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, to benefit the lives of female garment workers. (AlJazeera)
Examples of alleged Greenwashing include the following:
“Take, for instance, H&M’s use of cotton. It’s the material H&M uses most and the company boasts that the non-profit Textile Exchange has recognized H&M as the world’s number-one user of organic cotton, which has a lighter environmental impact, and reduces the use of “probably” carcinogenic pesticides. But only 13.7% of the cotton H&M uses is organic.” (Quartz)
In 2014, Forever 21 was subject to claims of greenwashing. “Not only has the fast-fashion powerhouse announced plans to the largest single-rooftop solar-power system in Los Angeles County, it also unveiled a new 18,000-square-foot concept store that promises greater quantities and even deeper discounts on its already cut-price clothing.” (ECouterre)
H&M launched a film campaign with actress Olivia Wilde to debut its new “Conscious Exclusive” collection for 2015 … yet in 2015, H&M will produce over 600 million new garments. That’s an increase of 50 million articles of clothing from 2011. It will expand its physical locations by 10 to 15 percent every year, requiring the use of energy-intensive resources. (Huffington Post).
LONDON, United Kingdom — April 24 marks three years since one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, when 1,134 people — predominantly female garment workers — lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Paza complex in the Savar region of Dhaka, Bangladesh. As we edge toward that grim anniversary, the question I keep being asked is: “What has changed?” I wish I had a better answer than “not much.”
I suspect what most of us mean by that question is “Which brands are now sufficiently clean for me to buy without feeling guilty?” We are, after all, children of the fast fashion revolution, and breaking away from this phenomenon seems impossible.
But while we’re not short on innovations claiming to be part of the solution to what are politely known as “challenges” within the fashion system, what we’re desperately short of is substantive change.
Almost all the emphasis has been put on brands to lead the transition to a clean, safe, equitable industry. But are they up to the job? Most brands have concentrated on the most easily achievable and easily marketable issues: detoxifying the cotton supply, using non-toxic dyes, or recycling unwanted clothes. This sort of stuff was perhaps impressive 10 years ago, but post-Rana Plaza, adds up to little more than giving the rag trade a light dusting. What’s needed is a courageous re-imagining of a flawed business model and supply chain.
This approach also makes for some particularly weird marketing strategies. I haven’t been shy about my distaste forWorld Recycle Week, launched by H&M — a brand that poses as a leader in recycling, while pursuing growth based on ever-increasing consumption of clothes. Meanwhile, Labour Behind the Label and the Campaign for Clean Clothes have highlighted how, three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?
Three years on from Rana Plaza, many brands have still not completed safety changes in strategic supplier factories. How can we call this progress?
In fact, I’m a big cheerleader for sustainability marketing. When supply chain reform is deep and authentic, green marketing can activate systemic change, and communicating these inspiring stories could be the rocket fuel we need to transition to sustainable consumption.
I also believe we’re about to see a revolution across sectors, driven by an emergent aspirational class of consumers who want to be part of something bigger than just the product. They’re looking for brands that can be leaders, and they’ll sniff out the inauthentic in a heartbeat.
Some fashion brands get this, like Honest, which tells consumers exactly how much it costs to sew on each button; Nudie jeans, which pays factory workers a living wage; or Patagonia, whose latest Worn Wear Tour lets customers bring broken apparel, irrespective of brand, to its mending vans, decoupling the apparel industry from disposability in an authentic way. Sadly, we don’t see much of this percolating into the mainstream, where sustainability marketing is still used to distract from reputational problems and where everything must come second to flogging trends at increasing volume and pace.
In my opinion, this is a crisis. Mainstream fashion is dogged by a paucity of ideas and a failure to commit to deep sustainability and activate real change.
We know this type of change is doable, because we see it happening in other sectors. It requires a greater evaluation of the supply chain and a lot of investment, and is a slow process — but it is doable.
Fashion is not taking the opportunity to reform and we are starting to see a noticeable lag as it falls behind other industries, like tea and fish. Both of these sectors have supply chains with endemic problems, which big brands have taken action to sort out. Both are showing more innovation, better sustainability strategies and activating greater systemic change than fashion. That’s tea and fish eclipsing fashion, an industry world-famous for dynamism and creativity. Tea and fish. I think that’s embarrassing.
Lucy Siegle is a journalist and author focusing on environmental issues.
H&M probably talks about sustainability more than any other fast-fashion brand. It produces a Conscious collection made using sustainable and recycled materials,creates glossy ad campaigns to encourage garment recycling, and has a voucher program offering discounts to those who donate their old clothes at its stores. On April 18, it kicks off a major project intended to collect 1,000 tons of used clothes, called World Recycle Week, that it’s promoting heavily, even making a music video in collaboration with rapper M.I.A.
These efforts sound great, but critics—myself included—have questioned how much they actually mitigate the massive and growing company’s environmental impact. Some suggest these displays of devotion to the notion of sustainability are “greenwashing,” distracting from the extent of the harm the company does, and even boosting sales.
But H&M undeniably spends time and money on these programs, and has made very real strides to reduce its impact—which is much more than many other companies have done. So is it fair to take the brand to task? And for consumers eager to reduce their own environmental footprint, or to express their beliefs with their spending, is H&M a smart place to shop? The answers are far from simple.
To start with, the biggest strike against H&M is the giant pile of clothing it produces every day. The Swedish retailer is one of the largest fashion brands in the world in terms of sales volume. It’s staggering to consider: The quantity of cheap t-shirts, jeans, dresses, jackets, and everything else it produced and sold reached about $25 billion in global sales(pdf) in 2015.
To grow the materials, dye and finish them with chemicals, manufacture, and ship all those clothes puts a tremendous strain on the environment and consumes vast resources. That volume is theprimary sustainability challenge H&M faces, and it knows it. It also wants to make sure shoppers are aware it knows, by promoting its sustainability efforts in its marketing—which is where things get tricky.
Lucy Siegle, a journalist at The Guardian who writes on sustainability, is one of those who has expressed skepticism about H&M’s recycling campaigns and “Conscious” clothing lines. She has pointed out that given the limitations of current technology, it would likely take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste. Meanwhile, it produces that same volume of new clothes in a matter of days.
H&M didn’t deny her calculation when asked about it, pointing out instead that it does indeed remain difficult to recycle fabric. “Unfortunately it is not possible to close the loop and recycle all types of materials into new textile fibres today,” a company spokesperson said. Material blends can be impossible to separate, while recycling cotton reduces its quality.
Greenpeace, which has lauded H&M for being the first fashion brand to eliminate PFC chemicals from its products, also criticized the recycling campaign. “H&M’s Recycling Week is in reality a week of illusions since only one percent of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibers,” Kirsten Brodde, the project lead of Greenpeace Detox My Fashion, wrote in a press release. “But this is not told to the customers.” She suggests that offering garment repair services would have done more good than inviting customers to recycle their old clothes and buy new ones.
In 2015, recycled fabric did rise to 1% of the materials H&M used, up from 0.2% last year, according to its newestsustainability report (pdf, p. 17). But H&M’s own comments call into question exactly what it means when it says at the end of the M.I.A. video that “95% of textiles thrown away worldwide could get a second life”—followed by the suggestion to bring those clothes to an H&M store.
Presumably they want you to trade them for a recycling voucher. When H&M started the program in 2013, Bloomberg remarked what a smart bit of marketingit was. The 15% discount was enough to perhaps prompt a new purchase, while still protecting the company’s profit margins.
But H&M says the vouchers are an effective way to encourage recycling. “The vouchers have a strong impact on our customers and work as an incentive to hand in clothes,” a company spokesperson said. “We want to offer an easy solution for the customer that today throws their old clothes in the garbage.”
If nothing else, H&M is at least shouldering the burden of keeping that clothing out of landfills. Since 2013, the company says it has collected more than 25,000 tons of textile waste. While it can’t recycle it all now, it says it is looking for ways to do so in the long-term. Last year, it partnered with a recycling technology company calledWorn Again, and it also launched a contest looking for innovative ideas.
Also worth noting, H&M increased the share of its raw materials that are sustainably sourced to 20% last year, up from 14% the year before. It reduced its total emissions 56% compared to 2014, and has proved that it will act to clean up the factories it sources from in China. And it argues that all those clothes it sells offer economic benefits to millions.
“Consumption as well as trade between countries and production in developing countries is necessary to create jobs and lift nations and people out of poverty,” a spokesperson said. “H&M is indirectly creating employment for over one million people, not least women, in the countries that manufacture our products.”
Some labor groups say H&M puts workers in unsafe conditions, especially in Bangladesh, by looking for the cheapest work possible. But there’s no doubt that the garment industry in the country has also been instrumental in improving millions of lives.
These sorts of contradictions runthroughout H&M’s business (pdf). It fights textile waste while producing massive volumes of cheap, easily disposable clothing. It wants to reduce its environmental footprint whiledoubling its store footprint. It works hard to position itself as an industry leader in sustainability, so it’s no surprise it gets singled out as an example of what’s wrong, even more than fast-fashion brands such as Zara and Primark.
Ultimately, the problem is still the business model—one that relies on a high volume of sales and a break-neck rate of growth. But that doesn’t mean incremental change is worthless. Nor does it mean that pressure from consumers is pointless.
The reality is the company is so large and affects so many lives that it needs to be held accountable. If H&M is going to run campaigns trying to convince consumers to behave differently, it should be willing to behave differently itself.