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When I was 14, H&M was the most exciting store in the world. I spent my summers in Sweden in a town too small for a chain like H&M. But one day each summer my grandmother and I would drive to the big city, Halmstad, to shop at H&M. She gave me 500 Swedish kronor for my birthday, and I saved it all for that one trip where I would buy my wardrobe for the school year. That's about $60 now. It might not sound like much today, but it was a lot for her, and it was an absolute fortune for me.
Sustainable Fashion vs. Fast Fashion
So when I saw that H&M was announcing their third annual Global Change Awards this week, I was intrigued. H&M has a lot of sustainability goals and practices, but it is also synonymous with “fast fashion” clothes that are meant to be worn one season and then thrown away.
The dichotomy between the sustainable image H&M wants to project, and the darker side of fast fashion waste made me realize how hard it is to define a leader. On the one hand, they are a global brand with what looks like real intentions to do the right thing. On the other hand, they're linked to manufacturers polluting the water and poisoning their workers1.
So is it wrong to keep loving them? I decided to dig into fashion in general and H&M in particular.
The Dirt on Fashion
Fashion is linked to a ton of waste, pollution, and even deforestation2, H&M included. So let's go dirt first.
A ton of clothes ends up in landfills each year. Inexpensive clothes aren’t made to last. I’ve owned some great H&M stuff that lasted years, but I’ve also ended up with things that fell apart the first day. I hate spending money on something I can't wear a few washes later. But I know there are millions of teen girls with a few bucks in their pocket hoping to find ten trendy things, even if they only last a hot minute. There will always be a market for them, so fashion needs to be made more sustainable.
Deforestation and Pollution
H&M was named in the Changing Markets.org’s report Dirty Fashion revisited: spotlight on a polluting viscose giant as a company sourcing viscose from highly polluting manufacturers. Since that report came out, H&M has committed to the Changing Markets Roadmap towards responsible viscose & modal fiber manufacturing, which is a good sign.
“We fully agree with Changing Markets on what actions need to be taken within the viscose production process. This is why we are fully committed to implementing Changing Markets’ Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing into our sourcing policy, a roadmap outlining actions on how the industry can move in a more sustainable direction,” according to H&M's statement on the roadmap.
Despite all the dirty fashion, H&M is on the path to making our planet healthier through sustainable innovation and environmental protections.
The Canopy Pledge
“Each year 120 million trees are cut down to make fabrics like rayon and viscose.”
– Canopy Planet
Ancient and endangered trees are cut and turned into a pulp that makes the viscose and rayon materials used in clothes3. Canopy Planet is a nonprofit working to keep vulnerable forests out of our clothes through a campaign called CanopyStyle. H&M's Protecting Global Forest through Fabric Choices states they planned to stopped sourcing materials from ancient forests in 2017.
125 other clothing brands have also pledged.
The Detox Avant-GARDE
H&M is one of three companies listed as the Detox Avant-GARDE in the fashion industry, based on meeting goals set by the Greenpeace Detox Catwalk campaign. Avant-GARDE companies are advanced in phasing out blacklisted chemicals, per/poly fluorinated chemicals (PFCs), and offering transparency in the hazardous chemicals used by their suppliers.
85% of clothes in the US end up in landfills. H&M says just bring it on over instead. Every H&M store takes all clothing brands and towels, but no shoes or handbags. Bring it to the register, and they'll make sure it gets re-worn, re-used or recycled. They even turn the dust into cardboard.
The Global Change Awards
Each year the Global Change Awards, hosted by the H&M foundation, distribute 1 million euros to companies working to make fashion more sustainable. A past winner makes vegan leather from leftover winemaking gunk; another makes materials from manure. Kind of gross, and kind of cool right?
This year's big winner was Crop-A-Porter, which makes materials out of leftover crops like bananas and pineapples. A winner from 2015 has partnered with my favorite Italian designer, Salvatore Ferragamo, to make fabric from leftover citrus. Whatever they're making, I'll take two in size two. Well, in Ferragamo, I can only afford one, and I'm closer to a size four, but a girl can dream.
A Sustainable Fashion Leader
With all that said, I've decided to keep loving H&M. They're not perfect, few companies are, but I still think they deserve to be called a leader in sustainable fashion. I haven't seen many others with goals to use 100% recycled and sustainably sourced materials by 2030, phase out PFC's, detox from hazardous chemicals, and stop using vulnerable forests. Their sustainability goals are ambitious if you compare them to almost any other fashion company.
I have a feeling my daughter will one day turn into an H&M shopper just like I was. Maybe by the time she pulls me in, their clothes will come from crop compost rather than trees and cotton.
To learn more about the CanopyStyle campaign and the forests that go into our clothes, check out the video below. Skip to minute 2:20 and watch through minute 3:15 to skip the fluff.