H&M’s “sustainability” report hides the unsustainable reality of fast fashion

It takes a lot of cotton to make all that fast fashion.
It takes a lot of cotton to make all that fast fashion.
Image: Reuters/Randall Hill
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On April 9, H&M released its annual sustainability report for 2014. The document details—at great length—how the company is implementing more eco-friendly practices in its supply chain and stores to reduce the harm it causes the environment, as well as its efforts on a variety of social welfare issues such as gender equality and poverty alleviation.

While the report makes it clear that H&M is doing a good deal to lessen its impact, a close read of the report also highlights the ways that goal and fast fashion are inherently at odds. By its nature, fast fashion is a volume business, which is exactly what makes it a strain on the planet.

H&M manufactures at least 600 million items each year and operates more than 3,200 stores in 55 countries (pdf). If you include its subsidiary brands, such as COS, that number jumps above 3,500 stores, and the company is expanding its locations by 10% to 15% each year. To operate those stores—not to mention manufacture and ship the clothes that fill them—requires a staggering amount of resources, from energy-hungry cotton to electricity, oil, and water.

Even if H&M manages to mitigate its environmental footprint slightly from one year to the next, its business continues to grow, and that footprint remains enormous—and far from sustainable.

H&M Conscious Denim campaign
H&M wants us all to be one big, happy sustainable family—preferably clad in its Conscious Denim collection.
Image: Courtesy of H&M

Take, for instance, the company’s use of cotton. It’s the material H&M uses most (p. 17), and the company boasts that the non-profit Textile Exchange has recognized H&M as the world’s number-one user of organic cotton (pdf), 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. And in any case, being such a massive user of the thirsty, energy-intensive crop—organic or not—may not be something to boast about.

H&M acknowledges that the sheer quantity of resources it consumes is a serious problem.

“We really want to do whatever we can to make sure our products have more positive impact and less negative impact both socially and environmentally than any of our competitors,” Henrik Lampa, H&M’s environmental sustainability manager, tells Quartz. “You have to work for this, systematically. But then in the long run, the negative impact is really linked to resource use.”

There’s also the issue of what happens to the clothes after they’re purchased. Fast fashion is a driving force in modern consumer culture, which insistently nudges people toward buying more and more clothing, whether they need it or not. Inevitably, much of this excess finds its way into landfills. In the US alone more than 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in landfills each year, and even natural fibers may not break down easily. It’s great that H&M is replacing part of its conventional cotton supply with organic, but a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill.

Landfill in India
Landfills like this one in India are full of discarded clothing.
Image: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has worked with H&M on cleaning up one of the dirtiest pieces of the manufacturing process: the chemical-intensive process of textile dyeing and finishing. She applauds H&M’s efforts, including making its supply chain more transparent and moving toward “circular” manufacturing, which emphasizes recycling clothes and reusing resources. (H&M has a garment recycling program that some identify as a “green marketing” tactic and 0.2% of H&M’s textiles are recycled.)

Still, she admits there is some incongruity between its goals and its practices. ”Fundamentally, there is a disconnect between the idea that you are selling a tremendous amount of clothing in fast fashion and that you are trying to be a sustainable company,” she says.

H&M seems genuine in its desire to clean up its act, but when it comes to sustainability, the core problem for fast-fashion companies is the business model—and that isn’t changing anytime soon.