Unavoidably Unsustainable: Can H&M Claim A Conscience?

In another effort to confirm their reputation as an eco-friendly fashion retailer, H&M are launching a National Fashion Recycling Week. And so the great question arises: can we really call any fast fashion retailer ethically conscious?

Since fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world (second only to oil), H&M has been hell bent on creating a green and conscious image over the past few years. Launching an organic cotton range and its successful Conscious Collection, the Swedish fast fashion powerhouse has made far more effort than most to offer their customers a more ‘ethical’ option. Their National Fashion Recycling Week aims to encourage consumers to think more consciously about their shopping habits, particularly targeting clothes waste, after a study conducted by the company discovered that 95% of discarded fast fashion could be re-worn or recycled.

But do these kinds of green efforts reverse the damage brands like H&M have continued to inflict? A few recycled dresses surely isn’t enough to revolutionise the unsustainable practices of big brands, is it?

Sure enough, according to human rights and environmental organisations, it isn’t even close. The Ethical Consumer awarded H&M’s organic range a grade 7.5/20, taking into consideration their dedication to issues affecting the environment, animals, people, politics and sustainability. Not awful – but that’s only a marginal improvement on H&M’s standard line, which scores 6.5/20.

Despite the efforts the brand has made to clean up its act in regards to pollution and waste, the issue of labour practices remains a gaping hole in H&M’s PG-13 image. In 2011, it was reported that nearly 200 workers in a Cambodian factory supplying H&M collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition related to long hours for pay that was half of the living wage, over the course of just one week.

Sustainability is becoming more of a buzzword every season, and it’s no surprise that H&M want in. Applying ethics to the mass market may seem oxymoronic in the context of the pollution caused by the high turnover of clothes and large amounts of garments which end up in landfills. But making sustainability more accessible to the mass market can only really be seen as a good thing, even if it is small scale. As a result of the Conscious Collection, H&M now stocks organic cotton, recycled fibres and hemp (Yes, really).

But are these movements indicative of a sincere and long term approach to sustainability? That’s what they would like us to think. H&M claim to have invested 100 people in corporate self-regulation program CSR but it’s clear that this is really about reinventing a destructive image by parading an army of vegan celebrities (most recently Olivia Wilde) robed in organic, sustainably sourced cotton.

Love it or loathe it, fast fashion is fundamentally unsustainable, encourages waste and drives down factory workers wages to ensure a cheap retail price. Sustainable fast fashion is not only oxymoronic but hypocritical. In the words of Marc Bain of Quartz, “a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill”.