H&M and the Fast Fashion Industry
H&M Group is the second largest apparel retailer in the world with 4,200 stores in 64 countries1. It is composed of six brands and sells an estimated 550M garments per year2. Similar to Inditex – the world’s largest apparel retailer – H&M operates on a ‘fast fashion’ model: producing clothing at extremely low prices, encouraging customers to dispose of garments after just a few wears to refresh their wardrobes with the newest fashion trends.
Fast fashion garners many critics for driving clothing to landfills, engaging in unfair labor practices, and contributing to 10% of global carbon emissions3. In response, H&M has developed a robust sustainability program. Several initiatives within this program are aimed directly at reducing its contribution to climate change.
Climate Change-Induced Risks to H&M
The physical effects of climate change will likely impact H&M’s textile suppliers. Rising temperatures allow pests to thrive in agricultural crops4, potentially damaging cotton and flax plant (the source of linen fabrics) growth5. A decline in the supply of cotton and linen may result in textile shortages or increased prices, impacting H&M’s ability to manufacture cotton and linen garments. Because a significant portion of fast fashion pieces are made from synthetic fabric, however, the potential risk to cotton and linen is likely to be of minimal concern to H&M. Instead, H&M is more concerned with limiting its own environmental impacts.
H&M’s Climate Change-Related Sustainability Initiatives
Climate change-related sustainability initiatives at H&M are comprised of three primary goals: 1. Increase the use of renewable energy in stores, offices, and warehouses. Impressively, H&M reports that the renewable portion of energy used in these locations has increased from 15% in 2011 to 78% in 20156. Installing windmills and solar panels on warehouses and IT data centers and reducing electricity usage in stores has contributed to this progress. Additionally, heat generated from IT data center cooling systems is used to heat apartments, maximizing the efficiency of energy used. As a result of these practices, H&M’s CO2 equivalents dropped from 290K tonnes in 2011 to 152K tonnes in 2015.
H&M has estimated that 10% of the CO2e emitted in a product’s lifestyle is a result of H&M’s retail operations. Another 36% comes from fabric production, and 26% come from caring for pieces at home. Accordingly, its other two climate change-related initiatives address other stages of the garment lifecycle: 2. Implement a supplier sustainability assessment program to support supplier adoption of sustainable practices. Additionally, H&M’s sustainability report indicates its intent to choose organic cotton (vs. conventional cotton) for its lower carbon impact. H&M has not stated quantitative goals for this initiative. 3. Ensure that 100% of transport service providers are registered with national organizations that track and support efficient energy usage in transportation. In North America, this entity is SmartWay, a subsidiary of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency7. Per its 2015 sustainability report, H&M has already reached this goal and continues to monitor its suppliers.
While H&M’s sustainability initiatives and progress-to-date are admirable, the company needs to aggressively address the 36% of garment’s carbon impact attributed to fabric production. This can be achieved through increasingly careful fabric sourcing and selection. 1. Use of organic cotton (vs. conventional cotton) only. The International Trade Center confirms that the lack of pesticide use in organic cotton leads to a lower carbon impact than that of conventional cotton5. 2. Reduce the proportion of garments made from synthetic materials. The fashion industry’s use of synthetic fabrics in comparison to cotton and linen is quickly growing – this is partly because the world’s total cotton yield simply cannot meet demand for the 150 billion garments produced each year8. Manufacturing nylon contributes approximately 10% to the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide, one molecule of which is 200CO2e9. Plastic fibers from synthetic clothing contaminate fresh water supply, exacerbating the risks to a resource already impacted by climate change10.
As the #2 global player, H&M should lead the charge in guiding the apparel industry towards sourcing organic, natural fabrics and reducing the proportion of garments made from synthetic materials. In response, textile suppliers will be forced to quickly adjust their practices to meet the demands of the fashion behemoth. While the fast fashion industry is fundamentally antithetical to sustainable practices, H&M should continue seeks new opportunities to minimize its contribution to climate change.
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- H&M Group Website, “About Us” November 3, 2016. <http://about.hm.com/en/about-us/markets-and-expansion.html>
- The Guardian, “H&M: how does the fashion retailer’s sustainability report stack up?” April 24, 2013. <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/h-and-m-sustainability-report>
- Grist: “Greening the clothing industry isn’t just about cotton and water. The message counts, too.” March 1, 2016. <http://grist.org/living/greening-the-clothing-industry-isnt-just-about-cotton-and-water-the-message-counts-too/>
- Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business (HBS Case)
- International Trade Center, “Cotton and climate change: Impact and options to mitigate and adopt” March 2011.
- H&M Conscious Actions Sustainability Report 2015
- EPA SmartWay <https://www.epa.gov/smartway>
- Quartz “If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be” November 3, 2016. <http://qz.com/414223/if-your-clothes-arent-already-made-out-of-plastic-they-will-be/>
- The New York Times, “Science watch: The Nylon effect” February 26, 1991. <http://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/26/science/science-watch-the-nylon-effect.html>
- Forbes “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming” December 3, 2015