How H&M is Greenwashing Their Way to the Top
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
When Fashion Revolution, a major organization in the sustainable fashion industry, dubbed H&M as the most transparent company for 2020's Fashion Revolution Week, I was pretty mad. For an organization that is a major contributor in the sustainable fashion movement becoming popular and accessible, their choice of using H&M as a model for what a transparent company looks like is misleading.
In my opinion, this type of mislabeling is to be expected when using the term 'sustainable'. The term sustainability in itself is ambiguous, and ambiguous words are the foundation of greenwashing/misleading. These types of words don't have a solid definition, and many companies can attribute their own meanings to these words. Ambiguity within the sustainable fashion world is rampant; is organic cotton sustainable, even though cotton uses a lot of water? is secondhand fur sustainable, or are you popularizing fur fashion? is a company sustainable if they pay their garment workers fair-wages, but hires only unpaid interns as staff? Ambiguity allows companies to live in the light of small 'sustainable wins,' but operate in the shadow of exploitation and environmental destruction. Greenwashing is possible in the sustainable sphere because companies aren't technically lying...they're just not telling the whole truth.
As I continued to monitor H&M's seemingly hyper-successful switch to a more sustainable model, I couldn't help but see that they are not addressing any form of system reform. H&M talks a big game about paying their garment workers fair wages, but there is limited documentation of this. H&M has not addressed slowing down their production, even though that would be the most sustainable thing they could possibly do at this point. H&M speaks little about clothing's longevity, and obviously doesn't try to create clothing that can last 20 years (remember your clothes should be lasting that long).
Ambiguity allows companies to live in the light of small 'sustainable wins', but operate in the shadow of exploitation and environmental destruction.
With all of this said, how is H&M topping all of these sustainability award lists? My guess is they are using all their greenwashing marketing resources to change their image. After years of H&M being the punching bag of the sustainable fashion world, they hit one of their biggest scandals when they burned $4.3 billion worth of unsold goods. After this 2018 blunder, I believe H&M doubled down on their PR team and sought to petition any accolade list that would listen. They've received awards for Forbes Best Workplace for Women, Fashion Transparency Index, Corporate Knight's Global 100, and more. These publications always seemed so reputable to me, shouldn't they have been able to see through H&M's clear greenwashing?
H&M (and other fashion brands) understands our society's lack of trusted sources and/or lack of unbiased sources, and they've capitalized on it. For a lot of these accolade lists you can submit an application to be included, or reach out to their 'list makers' to see if your company can be listed. This adds to the average shopper believing that H&M is a super sustainable company.
As these types of lists are good in their own regard, I think it's distracting us from what actually needs to change. We shouldn't create a sustainable system that runs parallel to capitalism. We need to change the whole system. If we can't rely on what a company is saying and what awards companies win, then we can't move forward with sustainability. H&M is pulling the wool (sweater) over the average shopper's eyes with flashy 'recycling' programs, and is winning awards from seemingly reputable organizations. As shoppers and citizens, we have to 1) take EVERYTHING fast fashion company's sustainability commitment says with a grain (or bucket) of salt, and 2) demand better from companies and governments to make it impossible for innocent shoppers to unknowingly buy clothing made from forced labor and toxic materials.
We shouldn't create a sustainable system that runs parallel to capitalism. We need to change the whole system.
I'm hoping fast fashion companies actually try and improve, not deploy their crisis communications team into overdrive. We have to stop celebrating companies for making minuscule changes. Everyday a fast fashion company is polluting our environment and abusing laborers, is a day more that our earth and garment workers will suffer the consequences.
So how can we help??
Continue to email, DM, comment companies asking what their sustainability policies are. Resist shopping at companies that don't align with your values. Train your eye to notice greenwashing from legitimate sustainable practices. Need help with the first steps? follow my Sustainable Wardrobe series here.
Disclaimer: these are my opinions and mine alone!