When shoppers entered H&M’s flagship store in central London last summer, the first thing they would have seen was a dark blue, flowery minidress hanging front and center. On sale for just GBP 4 (or USD 4.80), the dress featured more than a low price tag. It also boasted a green label with the word “CONSCIOUS.”
Further down the aisle, recycling bins stood next to a collection of striped t-shirts and dresses.
This setup is not uncommon in H&M’s 4,473 stores stores across the world. That’s because the company wants to be seen as a climate champion.
The Swedish clothing empire runs an array of sustainability programs, encouraging customers to bring back unwanted clothes for reuse. It’s been releasing annual sustainability reports since 2002 and launched its first Conscious Collection using organic cotton and recycled materials in 2010.
More recently, the H&M Group announced a plan to make all its apparel from recycled or sustainably-sourced materials by 2030. It has also tried adding “repair and remake” stations in select stores, and it’s testing clothing rentals in Stockholm.
Like its other fast fashion rivals, H&M’s core business model is fueled by low prices, rapid consumption and fast-changing trends — all of which are in direct tension with its sustainability mission. The global fashion industry generates a huge amount of waste – one full garbage truck of clothes is burned or sent to a landfill every second, according to the a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading non-profit working to improve the industry’s sustainability record.
When a shirt costs USD 5, it’s quickly seen as disposable. We are more likely to dispose of cheaper, mass-produced clothes than more expensive items, according to a 2009 study into consumer habits.
How clothes are harming the planet
Collectively, the global fashion industry produces nearly 4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or 8.1% of the world total, according to Quantis, a climate consultancy that analyzes the fashion industry’s environmental impact. That calculation includes the seven life stages of a garment, beginning with creating the fibers used to make it — by growing cotton, for example — to assembling the clothing and eventually, transporting and selling it. The calculations consider both apparel and footwear.
When you are standing in a mall or shopping online and ready to click “buy,” it’s hard to fathom the global consequences of individual purchases. But consider the impact of a single cotton t-shirt or a pair of jeans as examples.
The process of making one cotton t-shirt emits about 5 kilograms of carbon dioxide — around the amount produced during a 12-mile car drive. It also uses 1,750 liters of water. That’s because cotton is a water-guzzling crop, Quantis told CNN Business.
Producing a pair of jeans consumes even more water — around 3,000 liters — due to the dyeing and bleaching involved, according to calculations by Quantis. Making a single pair of jeans emits around 20 kg of CO2, the same amount produced during a 49-mile car journey.
There are more sustainable ways to grow cotton that include relying mainly on rainwater, rotating crops to preserve soil quality and limiting the use of pesticides. However, sustainable cotton remains a niche product, comprising only about 15% of the 2017 global total, according to the CottonUp initiative.
In 2017, the fashion industry devoured around 79 billion cubic meters of water, enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. And it’s only expected to get worse. The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group expect the fashion industry’s water usage will increase another 50 % by 2030.
That’s a threat, they warn, particularly to cotton-producing countries, which are quickly running out of water. Researchers at the Twente Water Centre at the University of Twente in the Netherlands say 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year. Nearly half of those people live in India and China, the world’s top two cotton producers.
In Central Asia, another major cotton region, cotton farming is partly responsible for drying up the Aral Sea, once one of the four largest freshwater lakes in the world.
It doesn’t end with the production. Washing clothes can also have a detrimental effect on the environment, especially because of synthetic materials like polyester that contain plastic fibers. After frequent washes, those fibers break down into microplastics, which can make their way to oceans and harm marine wildlife.
“60 % of materials used by the industry are plastic fibers [and] the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles are leaked into the ocean through garment wash every year,” said Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular program which brings together all the key players to create more sustainable fashion.
Denim manufacturer Levi Strauss is on a mission to change this.
For years the company has been encouraging its customers to reduce the number of times they wash their jeans. A 2013 report commissioned by the company revealed that consumer care was responsible for 23% of water used in the life cycle of its jeans.
Levi’s also found a way to create its signature faded denim, by using just a thimble of water and ozone gas instead of the traditional method, which can use up to 42 liters of water.
The company uses stones instead of water to achieve the “worn-in” look. This technique has reduced the volume of water used in garment finishing by 96% since 2011, the company says.
It does not end with the production. Washing clothes can also have a detrimental effect on the environment, especially because of synthetic materials like polyester that contain plastic fibers. After frequent washes, those fibers break down into microplastics, which can make their way to oceans and harm marine wildlife.
“60% of materials used by the industry are plastic fibers [and] the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles are leaked into the ocean through garment wash every year,” said Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular program which brings together all the key players to create more sustainable fashion.
Fast fashion companies produce billions of garments each year to provide their consumers with the latest trends. Critics, ranging from Greenpeace to the UK Parliament, say such mass production promotes the idea that clothes are disposable and encourages excessive waste.
Over half of fast fashion items are thrown away in under a year, according to estimates by management consultancy giant McKinsey & Company.
The problem is becoming apparent. In its 2019 “Fixing Fashion” report, the UK’s House of Commons’ environmental audit committee proposed that the government introduce a fast fashion tax to combat consumers’ disposable mindset. The inquiry’s tagline: “Fashion: it shouldn’t cost the Earth.”
The committee’s overarching message was straight forward: People need to rethink the way they dress by buying fewer but higher quality items that will last.
“Isn’t the real problem with the fast fashion industry that if you are selling stuff at £5 people aren’t going to treat it with any respect and at the end of its life it is going to go in the bin?” asked Mary Creagh, the parliamentarian who chaired the committee.
The proposed tax was tiny, just one pence (or about 1 US cent) per item. The lawmakers wanted to use the revenue to stop clothes from going to a landfill.
And ultimately the government rejected the idea, saying it wanted to focus on eliminating single-use plastic first.
Most used clothing isn’t recycled
In a bid to play its part, H&M launched a recycling program in 2012, allowing customers to exchange unwanted clothes for discount vouchers.
H&M’s latest sustainability report stated that of the used garments it collected, 50% to 60% were sorted for rewear or reuse. About 35% to 45% were recycled to become non-fashion products like cleaning cloths or insulation materials or made into new textile fibers. The remaining 3% to 7% that could not be recycled were burnt for energy production. 0% ends up in landfill.
The company aims to operate a 100% circular business model by 2030, which means ensuring that there is “no end of life [for materials] but creating a closed loop where everything is used as long and as often as possible and ultimately recycled,” Alpen said.
But some critics call this yet another example of greenwashing on the part of the company.
Orsola de Castro, a designer and a co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit global movement, said that the industry’s focus on circularity is a sign that the biggest companies are “hell-bent on continuing” with their current business model.
“These brands know very well that just throwing a couple of millions at some experimental circularity [project] was not going to solve the problem, but it was going to give them the opportunity to say ‘in the future, we can produce as much we want, you will be able to buy as much as you want, because ultimately, we will recycle everything’, but that is absolutely not true,” she said.
The future the companies talk about, she said, is so far away, it won’t make a difference any time soon. “We need to usher in a different behaviour by changing buying habits in the meantime, and that to me is slowing down,” she added.
H&M Group says it collected more than 29005 metric tons of unwanted clothing in 2019, but admits that for many types of textiles, viable recycling solutions either do not exist or are not commercially available at scale.
Worldwide as of 2015, 73 % of clothes ended up in landfills or incinerators because they cannot be recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit working to improve the industry’s sustainability record.
The main challenge is a lack of recycling infrastructure for textiles. Current technology only allows less than 1 % of clothing to be recycled into new apparel, Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular program, told CNN Business.
He said the fashion industry should design clothes with end of use in mind by integrating recyclable materials, such as lyocell, a fiber made from biodegradable wood pulp.
“The products are not designed to be turned into new [items] or refreshed in style…the materials that are used mean you cannot economically recycle clothes,” he added.
Most experts and fashion companies acknowledge the task ahead is huge and will require a multitude of solutions and technology that is not yet available.
“I don’t think there is a truly sustainable fashion business, but looking at the rest of the industry today, I can say very confidently that H&M is one of the most sustainable options out there,” Alpen said.