'Sustainable Style': The Truth Behind The Marketing of H&M’s Conscious Collection
Can a fast fashion brand like H&M really be sustainable?
“H&M are not being clear or specific enough in explaining how the clothes in the Conscious collection are more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell.” — Bente Øverli, Deputy Director of Norway’s Consumer Authority
Last week Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) revealed that they were investigating fast fashion giant H&M’s sustainability claims. Their investigation comes under the Marketing Control Act in Norway, Section 2 of which states that marketing cannot contain ‘an incorrect or otherwise misleading representation which is likely to influence the demand for or supply of goods’. Essentially, if brands mislead their customers in any way, it’s illegal under existing Norwegian law.
More specifically, the Consumer Authority are concerned that H&M may be unable to back up their claims about the sustainability of their business, and of their H&M Conscious collection in particular. This concern stems from the lack of explanation offered by H&M about exactly how their Conscious clothes are being manufactured:
“As H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labelled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.” — Bente Øverli
If you look at the information on H&M’s own website about their conscious collection, it’s somewhat limited. They have a webpage entitled ‘HM Conscious Explained’, of which you can see the full text in the image below.
That’s right — this is their ‘explanation’ of the range. Maybe it’s just me, but for an ‘explanation’ I’d expect a little more detail than just two short and sweet paragraphs. In terms of explaining why these products are ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, the only justification given is that they use up to 50% recycled material (or 20% for cotton products) in production. However, they don’t go into detail about the types of items they’re recycling, how they’re recycled, how they’re produced, what the carbon footprint of these products is compared to their other ranges, or even what their definition of ‘sustainable’ is. It doesn’t feel very transparent.
Alongside this explanation comes their marketing and photography of the collection, all of which centres around ‘green’ imagery of Conscious-clad models surrounded by lots of grass and plush green plant:
But is all this ‘green’ actually just an indication that we’re being greenwashed by H&M’s marketing department?
Let’s consider all we do know about the environmental impact of fast fashion brands like H&M. Between 1992 and 2002 we’ve decreased the amount of time we keep our clothes by 50%. The fashion industry churns out over 1 billion items of clothing every year, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent at the same time, accounting for 5% of global greenhouse gases . Furthermore, cotton is one of the main crops used in the production of clothing. Although it’s often portrayed as an eco-friendly option compared to synthetic alternatives, cotton is actually an incredibly thirsty crop. It takes 20,000 litres to grow 1kg of cotton, which is the amount needed to make one t-shirt and one pair of jeans .
And that’s not to even mention the social impacts of fast fashion. It’s well known that clothing factory workers are underpaid and overworked, and there’s also evidence of mental and physical abuse in the factories. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh highlighted the terrible conditions of the industry, with over 1300 people killed when a clothing factory collapsed. H&M was one of the brands being manufactured in that factory.
With this said, I’m pretty sceptical that a fast fashion brand can be sustainable.
Sustainable [adj]: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level; conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
H&M specifically have two main strands (as far as I can tell) to their ‘sustainability’ aims. The first is their Conscious collection of clothing, which we’ve already discussed. The second is their clothing recycling service, allowing customers to take old clothing from any brand to their stores to be recycled.
If we examine this clothing recycling service, H&M’s sustainability becomes even more questionable. The vast amount of clothing produced by fast fashion, and our growing demand for this as consumers, means that it would take fast fashion brands like H&M 12 years to recycle what they produce in just 24 hours. With this fact in hand, their recycling service starts to seem incredibly ironic. They’re encouraging consumers to recycle their old clothing, whilst they continue adding to the problem at an alarming rate themselves.
Plus, a significant percentage of the clothing that they produce goes immediately to waste, never even reaching the stores for consumers to purchase. In 2017 it was announced that the Vasteras power plant in Sweden would be going fossil fuel free, partly because they had been contracted by H&M to burn their defective clothing. After opening that year, by November 2017 the plant had burned 15 tons of discarded clothes from H&M .
And so, H&M’s recycling service becomes incredibly hypocritical. So why do they really offer this service? And what’s the true incentive behind the development of their Conscious collection?
The answer to that is simple. Their primary goal is to maximise profit, at all costs. That’s why when you do take a bag of old clothes back to H&M to be recycled, you receive a £5 off voucher for your next purchase at H&M. The whole scheme is a marketing campaign to retain customers and persuade you to buy more clothes, contributing further to the fast fashion industry’s profits at the cost of the environment.
This is backed up by research into the fashion industry too. A review of consumer sales between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at the Stern Center for Sustainable Business, of New York University, found that products that were highlighted as ‘sustainable’ would sell much faster than products which were not . So, by giving the impression that they are an environmentally conscious company, and by selling products that are marketed as ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, H&M are doing themselves a massive favour in terms of sales and profit. This is what lies at the heart of their sustainable style focus.
The unreliability of their sustainability claims are clear in the below statement from Helena Helmersson, H&M’s Head of Sustainability when she was asked how H&M could prove and ‘guarantee’ their eco credentials:
“I don’t think guarantee is the right word…A lot of people ask for guarantees: ‘Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?’ Of course we cannot when we’re such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions.”
— Helena Helmersson, H&M Head of Sustainability
When huge high-street brands like H&M claim to care about climate change, and to be deliberately working to improve their sustainability credentials, it gives us a way to feel like we’re engaging with sustainable fashion and boycotting all that fast fashion stands for. It’s an easy way: H&M is cheap, accessible, and it’s what we know. We don’t have to stop shopping, we can shop at our high street favourite and still be seen as an eco warrior.
But this doesn’t feel authentic. It’s clear that H&M are making movements towards being more sustainable, and as a huge company every small step they make is significant. However, if we rely on fast fashion brands to make the industry sustainable, then we’ll be waiting a long time. Given the resources that they use and the waste they produce, I ultimately think that there’s a fundamental contradiction at the centre of the idea that a fast fashion brand can sustainable, which marketing and labels cannot fix.
 Facts from https://7billionfor7seas.com/fast-fashion-facts/
 Fact from WWF https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton
 ‘Research on IRI purchasing data’, NYU Stern (March 2019)