H&M was the stuff dreams were made of when I was a teenager. Finally getting to go to the mall and peruse the endless racks of the latest fashions, digging through the rubble on the clearance shoe shelves, it was like treasure hunting on a budget.
Now older and wiser to the woes of the fashion industry, I see a different story among those multicolored racks and the shining faces of the next generation pilfering through them:
And it sucks because I’m still that teenage girl at heart — the one whose fashion sense isn’t based on trends but is constantly inspired and changing. I don’t want to believe that the fashion industry is putting our planet at risk. I really don’t.
But the reality is that the fashion industry has become one of the most wasteful on the planet, consuming enough water to dry up an entire sea, and creating an industry in which workers are often severely underpaid.
From textile production to the 80% that winds up the landfills year after year, there’s no escaping the weight of the math: planet earth has a serious fashion problem.
What Is Fast Fashion?
You’ll see this term thrown around a lot when people discuss the environmental ramifications of clothing production. Fast fashion is based on a concept called planned obsolescence, in which something is literally made and sold with no intention of it lasting.
In the fashion industry, planned obsolescence has become a way for clothing manufacturers to get customers to buy clothes more often, but also to keep clothing at a low enough price point that they don’t put up a fight about it.
We buy our clothes at $9.97, they fall apart after six washes, and by then, it’s time to buy the next season’s fashions anyway, so we don’t sweat it. We toss them, we donate them, we buy more.
It’s a problem that’s built the fast fashion industry, and it’s built not just on the desire for big healthy profits for these companies, but on our desires as consumers to constantly change our look.
We demanded it, and we got our supply. Now what?
When the Big Guys Get It
H&M is the second biggest fashion retailer in the world, and they’re notorious for making a lot of cheap clothing.
Interestingly though, in the past few years H&M has made several big strides towards more ethical manufacturing practices:
- Living wages. With such a diverse supply chain, it’s tough to trace something like the wages of the workers who produce the raw materials for H&M’s clothing. However, the company has pledged to establish fair living wages for all of the people who produce their products, including those in Bangladesh, where most of their manufacturing takes place.
- Recycling old clothes. H&M’s clothing recycling program is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with bins at every retail location. They’ll accept anything too — it doesn’t matter if it’s not their brand.
- Using renewable energy. For at least part of their business, H&M has begun to make use of energy from renewable sources.
- Using sustainable materials. Though there are plenty of not-so-nice textiles still in the mix on H&M shelves, the company has scaled its sustainable textile use to over 35% of its current production.
These are small steps, but with a company selling at the scale of H&M, the waves of change are strong.
H&M Big Green Future
The company admits they’re always looking for ways to make their business more sustainable. Looking ahead, H&M has some BIG goals to make it more sustainable than ever:
- Recycle 15% of manufacturing wastewater back into the production process by 2022
- Eliminate solvent-based glues and hazardous chemicals by 2020
- Use only recycled or other sustainability sourced materials by 2030
- Be 100% climate positive by 2040
There’s Still Some Stuff to Figure Out
While it’s true that H&M isn’t the perfect role model for the sustainable fashion retailer, they’re facing some challenges that have never been overcome, and that means there’s some innovating to do.
The reality is, it’s tough manufacturing clothing that will last or at least biodegrade at a mass-production level at a price point that people are receptive to. If the average price of something from H&M doubled at the cost of environmental initiatives, it would certainly be the ethical thing to do, but would consumers reward them with their business?
They’re tough questions to answer, but companies around the world are currently working on all of them. As retail giants begin to shift to more sustainable business models, the best thing we can do as consumers is show them we dig it.
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