The fast-fashion industry, characterized by garments worn less than five times and kept for 35 days, produced 400% more carbon emissions per item per year in comparison to garments worn 50 times and kept for a full year . As one of the world’s largest fast-fashion retailers, H&M is aiming to reinvent the fast-fashion industry by making sustainable fashion choices available, attractive, and affordable for the masses .
The apparel industry accounts for 10% of the total global carbon impact and is the second largest industrial polluter, second only to the oil industry . In addition, 20% of industrial freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing, and nearly a quarter of all chemicals produced in the world are used in textiles . These are just the ecological and economic impacts of the apparel industry; the social impacts are far more complex. At the same time, consumers are becoming more mindful about what they wear, where it came from, how it was produced and by whom. This demand for transparency from consumers coupled with the adverse effects of climate change on profitability has forced companies, like H&M, to implement sustainability standards into their businesses.
H&M’s Conscious Collection
H&M is one of the largest go-to affordable, fast-fashion retailers, second only to Inditex, owner of Zara . H&M sells more than 600 garments of clothing every year and annual sales have reached $24B as of 2015 . H&M has taken impressive but much needed action to address their role as a major contributor to climate change. In 1997, they launched a comprehensive sustainability program to address these issues and since then, they’ve published 14 annual sustainability reports, built out a staff of 200 dedicated sustainability employees, and introduced a distinct clothing line made out of sustainable raw materials called the “Conscious Collection” .
As of 2015, they’ve produced some impressive sustainable figures :
- 20% of raw materials were sourced sustainably
- 78% of total electricity use comes from renewable sources
- 31% of total cotton used certified as organic cotton, Better Cotton (BCI), or recycled cotton
- 56% reduction in total CO2e emissions compared with 2014
- 12,341 tons of clothing were collected for reuse and recycling
H&M’s Sustainability Strategy
One of the major complications with H&M’s sustainability program is that H&M estimates that only 10% of the carbon footprint stems from their own operations, leaving nearly 90% of the climate impact attributable to their partners . A critical aspect of their value chain within their control is how they source raw materials. Cotton is the primary raw material used in production at H&M . As a crop, cotton is more resilient to the impacts of climate change however, cotton farming is one of the most water intensive processes in the supply chain process. To address this issue, H&M has increased their use of sustainable cotton, specifically organic cotton which has 46% less carbon impact than conventional cotton . Additionally, organic cotton requires less fertilizer and pesticides which improves H&M’s overall profitability . According to the Textile Exchange’s Organic Cotton Market Report, H&M was the #2 user of organic cotton by volume in the world in 2015 and H&M has set an ambitious goal of using 100% sustainable cotton by 2020 .
In addition to sourcing sustainable resources at the front end of the product life cycle, H&M has taken steps to control waste at the back end of the cotton life cycle as well [See Figure 1]. The U.S. EPA estimates that textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space in the U.S. when nearly 95% of this could be recycled or reused . In 2013, H&M introduced their garment collecting initiative – collecting over 22,000 tons of old garments for reuse and recycling since launch, enough fabric for nearly 100 million t-shirts . Yet, in order to achieve this completely closed loop cycle for textile fibers on such a massive scale, H&M will need to invest heavily in people and new technologies over the coming years. This doesn’t come without potential risks to H&M’s business and value proposition, including increased costs, compromised quality, and higher prices for the end consumer.
Is Sustainable Fashion Actually Sustainable in the Long Term?
H&M is a textiles business and so long as they make apparel, they will remain heavily dependent on raw materials to produce their product. The cotton commodity market naturally fluctuates based on supply and demand, and these price fluctuations are either absorbed by the consumer or by the company . In the future, H&M may face pricing challenges as they aim to price within the customer’s means while also staying true to their ethical commitments throughout the supply chain. The element of fairness, both within their supply chain and to their customers, is key in order for H&M to achieve long-term success.
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