H&M: Fashionable or Fashionably Late

The emergence of fast fashion has drastically affected the way and rate at which clothing is consumed. The fiber economics bureau reported that per capita consumption of fiber in the US is 83.9 lbs, with over 40 lbs / capita being discarded every year. Americans are now buying 5x as much clothing as they did in 1980. H&M and other fast-fashion cohorts are not only major contributors to global warming through the manufacture of clothing, but will also be negatively affected by current practices. While the company has taken certain sustainability initiatives, they may not be enough to address the deleterious effects of the whole lifecycle of the products they produce.

In 2015, several apparel manufacturers met at the UN Conference of the Parties to commit to mitigating the growth of greenhouse gas pollution. Company leaders acknowledged that the changing climate would lead to compromised (and thereby, costly) cotton production, in addition to compromised factory conditions in areas that are less resilient to climate change. H&M was part of these conversations, and has continued to communicate its commitment to sustainability. It often cites supporting innovation and technology related to more environmentally friendly processes and materials. Last year the company also cited that 78% of its stores, warehouses and offices used electricity from renewable sources. Most visibly, since 2013 H&M has offered 15% discount vouchers to any customers who donate their used clothing.

However, I am not convinced these actions are enough to address the negative impact of the full lifecycle of clothing.  Many challenges occur post-production, where we see the vast inefficiencies in the current state of textile recycling. While 95% of textiles in the US can be recycled, only 15% of clothes are actually recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills. Approximately 40% of this very small base of recycled clothing is worn again. The rest is repurposed or sold to other countries at 5 – 20 cents / pound. Fast fashion is considered even less efficient, as it is less likely to be reworn/resold due to its poor quality and low resale value.

Remaining clothing left for landfills are not resolved without consequence. While natural fibers like cotton may decompose in landfills, they leave behind chemicals that can eventually leach into groundwater if not properly sealed.  Synthetic fibers are even more challenging, as many are made from petroleum (similar to plastic bags) and can take up to several hundred years to biodegrade. In addition, many synthetics would need to be recycled chemically, which would first require that the specific fibers be identified. With so many varieties of synthetic and mixed fibers, this becomes increasingly complex.

Fundamentally there is a lack of ownership from all parties involved when it comes to managing clothing after the point of purchase. Consumers have little incentive to recycle goods, particularly fast fashion items that have low resale value. In addition, there are currently no negative consequences to disposing clothing irresponsibly. Manufacturers like H&M have taken steps to encourage recycling and has invested in recycling technologies. However, one can assume clothing manufacturers are ultimately interested in maximizing the volume of clothing produced.

Given the perverse incentive structure seen in fast fashion, I believe it is an area that could benefit from regulation. Similar to policies we have seen with plastic bags in grocery stores, I believe the industry could benefit from a tax on clothing, perhaps dependent upon fabric type. For example, higher taxes should be placed on fabrics made of synthetic fibers given they are more harmful to the environment. This could not only influence the types of fabrics clothing companies choose to source, but also further educate the consumer on how different materials have different impacts on the environment. In addition, perhaps for higher end brands or materials – manufacturers may want to consider ways to incentivize the recollection of their items so as to be recycled more efficiently. Similar to how plastic bottles carry redemption values, customers could receive refunds for donating back their clothing to the original manufacturer. Not only would this help to easily identify the fabrics that are being used, but it could also nurture greater brand loyalty. In addition, it could serve as a source of customer feedback, as companies would be able to better learn about the ‘wear and tear’ aspects of their product over time.

While the steps taken by H&M and others in the apparel sector are appreciated, I think there is much more to be done within the ecosystem. In addition, focusing only on improving post-production recycling rather than clothing consumption and production is not only imbalanced, but borders on naivete. Truly sustainable practices within fashion will need to further educate and incentivize the consumer to make greener choices, and encourage manufacturers to think more about close-looped / effective modes of recycling. (Word Count: 797)

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2 thoughts on “H&M: Fashionable or Fashionably Late

  1. This is such an interesting post – thanks for sharing! While many retailers seem to be taking steps towards sustainability, I often wonder how much of their production they actually manage to offset, and you provided some really insightful information I hadn’t thought about — like the feasibility of recycling clothes. I think regulation would be a great idea on synthetic materials, but I would also like to see some sort of public marketing campaign on the recyclability of clothing as I think this is a huge gap in consumer knowledge.

  2. I agree with you that H&M is taking a step in the right direction to contribute to the recycling of clothes, but there is still a lot of progress to be made. Are other retailers making efforts in the right direction that H&M can look to for guidance? How does donating clothes to the Salvation Army/ similar resell stores play a role in this? Are any big fashion brands trying to make clothing out of more sustainable fabrics?

    Thanks for this interesting post. I think it is a great start to the conversation and makes me want to learn more about sustainability in the fashion world!

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