H&M is the second-largest global clothing company, (following Inditex, the parent company of Zara). They operate in 62 countries, with over 4,500 stores and were reported to have reached almost $25 billion in global sales, in 2015. With this kind of success the environmental and social cost of production must come into play. I thought it would be interesting to look at what one of the largest clothing companies in the world is doing to combat the fast-fashion trend. H&M has made leaps and bounds in the last few years, promising to change their production methods in order to become more sustainable. It wasn’t always that way. They have made a serious turn around. In 2011, a factory in Cambodia supplying H&M was found to have harmful fumes causing workers to pass out, up to 200 individuals per week, as well as were found exploiting children and adults for forced labour in cotton fields. Furthermore, H&M was found to be using chemicals that were damaging local water supply.
After consumer outcry and pressure from environmental and social groups, H&M has turned over a new leaf. Since then, H&M has outsourced their products to be made by independent suppliers and only have created working relationships with suppliers that agree to their strict code of conduct; The Sustainability Commitment. The Sustainability Commitment focuses on three major areas: explicit expectations of fair wages, a detailed expectation in regards to environmental practices, and explicit standards in regards to animal welfare. H&M believes that sustainable fashion goes beyond products made from sustainable materials, that the responsibility extends to the entire value chain. They have committed to improving working conditions by frequently inspecting workplaces as well as negotiating with local governments to improve minimum wages. Additionally, they were the first major retailer to ban the use of NPE’s, (used as surfactants, printing pastes, detergents and other uses) in 2009, banned the use of PFC’s (water-repellent material used for outwear) and are striving to eliminate chemical run-off.
One of their largest initiatives has been to address the daunting amount of textiles that are worn and then wasted. It is estimated that by 2020, the global demand for polyester and cotton fibre will amount to 90 million tonnes. H&M has partnered with Worn Again which is a company that is working to recycle textiles by separating and extracting polyester and cotton. However this technology is still in the developmental process, in the meantime, H&M has initiated a recycling program. This program allows consumers to drop off unwanted or worn out clothes at H&M location to be relocated for second use, or recycled. (Consumers are rewarded with a 15% discount, ooh).
However, Greenpeace condemned 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 fibres." The companies argument was that offering to take in unwanted clothing allows the company to "give new life" to the materials instead of ending up in a garbage bag. Whether or not the garments are actually recycled, they are still either sold as second hand clothing or turned into other products such as cleaning cloths. H&M proudly advertises that they have gathered more than 32,000 tonnes of garments.
It's easy to criticize a big company like H&M. It is such a large corporation that affects many different lives and because of this will always have some reason to be at fault. Maybe their initiative does have an element of "greenwashing" or marketing strategy, but at least their values are placed in the right place. I'd say that companies like H&M that recognize that there are problems and mistakes that they have made in the past and present, and are striving to find solutions, should be respected. I think that H&M is taking the lead in addressing environmental issues that all companies should be acknowledging.