Is H&M Sustainable And Ethical?

We weigh up the social and environmental impacts of H&M as a fast fashion giant in the clothing industry.

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H&M Sustainability & Ethics Snapshot

> Learnings for business

H&M has taken some steps towards sustainability, but can do much more. The group should focus on reducing the amount of textile waste they produce by improving product quality, recycling items, and using more innovative, eco-friendly materials. It should also ensure all workers’ receive fair and ethical treatment across its supply chain, and address diversity concerns.

> Learnings for consumers

H&M is improving in certain areas and their marketing efforts promote a considered eco-conscious approach to business. 

However, the reality of its “greener” product line and carbon-cutting initiatives is unclear, leading to the ultimate question: is H&M really sustainable or is H&M greenwashing? With such a vast chain of supply and a fast fashion business model, we think consumers should stick with more sustainable fashion brands.

Who Is H&M?

H&M is a fashion giant encompassing eight of the industry’s most well-known clothing brands, so their environmental and ethical impact is significant. 

Let’s start with the good. How is H&M a sustainable company?

The group is relatively transparent in their reporting and provides clear goals to reduce its impact on the planet. Along with reasonable steps in utilizing renewable energies throughout its supply chain, they use external monitors and trusted reports to support its commitments. 

H&M was also one of the first fast fashion brands to release an eco-conscious collection, encouraging buyers to consider organic and recycled material in their clothing. 

In recent years, H&M has also tried to improve its sustainability and ethical practices through second-hand initiatives and rental services.

However, as one of the largest fashion retailers in the world, it has faced criticism for its fast fashion business model, which relies on producing inexpensive clothing quickly and in large quantities. The company manufactures an estimated three billion garments yearly and, as of 2019, had approximately $4.1 billion worth of unsold or unwanted clothes. 

Not exactly the workings of an eco-friendly business. 

It has also continuously come under fire for its ambiguous claims of using “more sustainable” materials. It’s unclear how close the company is to achieving its sustainability targets, and concerns about the conditions and pay for workers in its massive supply chain remains.

It’s against this backdrop that many consumers and critics are asking: is H&M sustainable fashion? How eco-conscious is H&M really? Is this just another case of sophisticated greenwashing?

Let’s take a deep dive into H&M’s sustainability initiatives and ethical practices and examine its environmental impact, labor practices, social responsibility, to decide whether shopping at H&M is on the spectrum of sustainability or a sustainable fashion faux pas.

H&M’s Sustainability & Transparency Reporting

H&M publishes a yearly sustainability report which details the environmental and ethical impact of the entire H&M group: & Other Stories, COS, Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday, H&M Home, and ARKET.

The H&M sustainability report covers the group’s fundamental sustainability efforts, practices and its approach to circularity, climate, and nature. It also looks at H&M’s social responsibility, supply chain management, and ways of reporting.

H&M’s Environmental Impact: Is H&M A Sustainable Brand?

H&M has a significant environmental impact due to the amount of clothing it produces and the resources required to create and transport those garments—not to mention the textile waste they generate when they get replaced or wear out. 

Some critical environmental concerns associated with H&M include carbon emissions, water usage, and textile waste.

How Sustainable Is H&M’s Supply Chain & Manufacturing?

The global retailer already uses renewable energy in parts of its supply chain and aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 40% by 2030.

The brand announced its “Water Strategy 2030” last year, which involves implementing water-saving initiatives in some of its factories and production facilities to become a more sustainable business. It has already reduced relative water consumption per product by 38% (compared to a 2017 baseline). 

The company also scaled their “TextileGenesis” program, utilizing blockchain technology to trace textiles across the supply chain. So far, around 44 million pieces have been fully traced.

H&M’s Fabrics and Materials

H&M was the first fast fashion giant to launch a sustainable fabrics line, releasing the Conscious Collection in 2011. According to the company, products are made from at least 50% sustainably-sourced materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.

The group has committed to using 30% recycled materials in its commercial goods by 2035—by 2022, it was at 23%. 

However, most of H&M’s products are still made from conventional materials, such as non-organic cotton and synthetic fabrics, which significantly impact the environment. 

The group has also come under fire for the complicated and misleading labeling of its Conscious Collection. Although advertised as made from at least 50% sustainable materials, a closer look at the description states that this was true for only a specific part of the items (i.e. the outer layer of a top). 

This is a classic example of greenwashing and demonstrates how marketing can mislead consumers about a brand’s eco-efforts.

Although the 2022 H&M sustainability report highlights their achievement of 84% recycled or other more sustainably sourced materials, specific details about where these are used and what the “other” materials are, are vague.

H&M has launched several initiatives to address its textile waste and become a more sustainable brand, including a garment collection program allowing customers to recycle or donate their old clothes.

However, the company is still one of the most significant contributors to the fast fashion business model, ultimately relying on and encouraging consumers to buy and dispose of clothing quickly.

Is H&M a cruelty-free ethical company?

H&M partnered with PETA to produce a cruelty-free, vegan collection in 2021. This included swapping popular fashion trends for ethical alternatives, such as using wildflowers instead of down feathers, wine grape leather instead of animal skin, and knitwear fiber from nylon discards.

However, critics quickly pointed out these products’ included high levels of plastic and other synthetic, unsustainable materials.

H&M doesn’t use exotic animal skins, hair, or fur from wild or endangered animals in any of its products.

What Are H&M’s Carbon Reduction Commitments?

Using the Science Based Targets Initiative, H&M aims to reduce absolute scope 1, 2, and 3 CO2 emissions by 56% from their 2019 baseline by 2030, and achieve net zero by 2040—removing more GHG from the atmosphere than they emit through their operations and value chain.

The company has also committed to sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and improving energy efficiency in stores by 2025.

Despite the clarity in setting these and other specific sustainability goals, the data is mixed regarding how close they are to achieving these targets and considering their vast network of operations it’s difficult to quantify

H&M had a mere 7-8% absolute reduction in GHG emissions in 2022, suggesting more work is needed. 

In the same year, the group used 92% renewable electricity in its operations (though this was down from 95% in 2021) and minus 23% in its stores’ electricity intensity.

The year-on-year data for its GHG also isn’t promising—the group was up 18% in its operations and only down 4% in scope 3 emissions.

While the company’s targets are ambitious and provide an excellent selling point, it appears H&M isn’t necessarily on track to meet them and become a sustainable brand, something most consumers won’t monitor or check.

H&M’s Social Impact: Is H&M Ethical?

The question of whether H&M is an ethical company is complex. 

While the group has taken steps to improve the treatment of workers and made public commitments to promote equality and inclusion, H&M has faced several labor and diversity scandals.

H&M’s Labor Practices

H&M implemented a “fair living wage” program, committing to paying all workers fair and living wages by 2018. 

This was still not achieved by 2019, and while the group has made progress in some areas of worker’s rights, it’s unclear if this overall goal has been met. 

H&M ranked fourth in the Fashion Revolution’s 2022 Fashion Transparency Index (FTI), with 66%. However, this was down from 68% in 2021. The group is transparent about its suppliers, publishing details about its policies, audit, and remediation processes. 

However, some have argued such audits are weak and inadequate, allowing factories to make only superficial changes to satisfy inspections without resolving the more egregious H&M ethical issues.

Additionally, the code of ethics is rather vague in what is and isn’t prohibited under its “zero tolerance policy”. The H&M code of ethics does, however, specify the group provides a Speak-Up channel to report any ethical violations, though it’s impossible to know if the company follows through on its promise to investigate all reports.

Some advocacy groups have also raised concerns about the company’s past use of forced labor, particularly in countries like China and Myanmar. 

H&M responded to these concerns by cutting ties with some Chinese producers. It also conducted audits and inspections of its suppliers and implemented measures to improve H&M working conditions. These included trade union representation, collective bargaining agreements, and training on gender-based violence and sexual harassment. 

Following the Coronavirus pandemic, H&M introduced policies to ensure worker health and protect employees from the virus. However, it’s unclear how widely these were implemented.

H&M’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI)

H&M has tried to promote diversity and inclusion, but there have been criticisms and controversies about its practices.

On the positive side, H&M has made public commitments to promote diversity and inclusion, such as signing the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles and setting targets for increasing employee diversity. 

It has also implemented initiatives to promote gender equality, such as offering equal pay for equal work and promoting women to leadership positions. For example, they’re working to increase the percentage of female supervisors in their tier 1 production partners, with steady annual increases (24%, 28%, and 27%, respectively since 2020).

However, H&M has faced controversies related to diversity and inclusion. 

In 2018, the company received criticism for a racist advert featuring a black child wearing a hoodie with the text “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” The incident led to calls for a boycott of the company and sparked a broader discussion about diversity in fashion and advertising.

H&M has faced accusations of cultural appropriation, particularly in using traditional designs, patterns and text in its collections. Some argue the company has profited from cultural traditions without giving appropriate credit or compensation to the communities from which they originate.

Is H&M Socially Responsible?

H&M’s social responsibility and giving back initiatives focus on sustainability, education, and equality. In 2022, the group contributed SEK 114.2 million (around USD 10.8 million) to community investment programs.

The H&M Foundation is a non-profit organization established by the company in 2013. Its mission is to drive positive change and create a more sustainable future, and the foundation supports education, water, equality, and circular economy initiatives. 

For example, the group has partnered with organizations to educate children in refugee camps and promote sustainable water use in the fashion industry.

H&M has partnered with several NGOs to support social and environmental initiatives. One example is its partnership with CARE to improve working conditions for women in the garment industry and its work with WWF to promote sustainable water use and wildlife conservation.

Is H&M More Ethical Than Nike?

Comparing Nike’s ethical performance against H&M’s is complex. Both companies have faced repeated criticism and controversies related to their social and environmental practices.

On the positive side, both have committed to becoming fairer and more sustainable. They have set ambitious targets for reducing their carbon footprint, investing in greener technologies, and improving working conditions in their supply chains. 

They’ve also implemented initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, such as offering fairer wages and promoting women to leadership positions.

However, Nike and H&M are no strangers to consistent criticism and controversies about their practices. 

Nike has been condemned for using sweatshop labor in its supply chain, particularly in countries like China and Indonesia. As the world’s largest activewear brand, they have also been accused of not doing enough to produce more eco-friendly items and reduce its carbon footprint.

H&M has been repeatedly denounced for its role in perpetuating fast fashion, leading to high waste levels and environmental impact. This may give Nike the edge over H&M from an ethical and sustainable perspective, though neither are a model of sustainable fashion. 

With ties to poor working conditions, forced labor scandals, and regular greenwashing accusations, H&M ethics and social responsibility also leave a lot to be desired.

H&M Ethics Controversies, Red Flags, & Greenwashing?

H&M is a major player in the fast fashion industry. Despite its commitment to using recycled materials, rental initiatives, and garment collection programs, the group’s overall aim is for consumers to buy more and pay less. The company’s regularly changing and seasonal collections and cheap products promote overconsumption and depletes resources, creating an enormously damaging environmental impact.

Because of this, many of their sustainability commitments have been condemned as greenwashing. Misleading labeling, unclear goals, and inconsistent reporting has indeed contributed to this. 

Consumers should cautiously approach any “green” initiative they release—the collections are often small, not widely available, or not as eco-friendly as advertised.

While H&M has addressed its unfair labor practices and has goals of paying living wages, the realities of these commitments could be more evident. 

It’s also important to remember the group has thousands of factories worldwide and is responsible for over 1.3 million textile workers, making it almost impossible to know where H&M clothes are made. Although trade union representation in 42% appears to be a decent effort toward H&M human rights protection, many workers are still at risk of missing out on fairer pay and better working conditions.

It’s also worth noting that 42% is only applicable to their tier 1 factories, not to speak of the many tier 2 or 3 factories and suppliers in the vast H&M chain of supply.

The company continues to publicly promote a conscious and ethical approach while profiting from the wasteful and unsustainable world of fast fashion.

Ultimately, H&M is a fast fashion brand with no apparent plans to change its business model or slow growth. Because of this, we’d recommend purchasing from more sustainable fashion brands likely to produce good quality clothing that lasts longer and has a smaller carbon footprint.

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