H&M has a great initiative whereby you can take a full shopping bag full of old clothing or linen or towels (or a mixture of all three) to any of its stores in SA, to be recycled.
This is an important step towards being more sustainable, especially given the huge impact that the fast fashion industry is having on our environment (read more about it here). In fact, it’s said that after the oil industry, fashion is the biggest polluter in the world.
It’s great that H&M is doing this, and I applaud its efforts. However, I think it is also important that we understand what they are doing and its true impact, so that we don’t think the problem has been solved. It hasn’t.
For starters, many of the fabrics and clothing that are being turned in to H&M cannot be recycled. Partly this is because fabrics have to be chopped up to be recycled – which, especially in the case of cottons, results in lower quality fabrics which often are not suitable for use. And partly this is because many fabrics are blends, which makes them difficult to recycle.
Kirsten Brodde, the project lead of Greenpeace Detox My Fashion, wrote in a 2016 press release that this means it is likely that only 1% of the items H&M collects will be recyclable.
Lucy Siegle, a journalist at The Guardian, calculated that it would probably take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste – which was their target for a week long collection campaign they ran in 2016. To give this some context, 1,000 tonnes of clothing is also approximately how much H&M manufactures in a 48 hour period.
So none of this is to say that H&M’s initiative is not good, but rather that the actual good that can be done from it is limited, and that the claim “As much as 95% of clothes thrown away could have been re-worn or recycled” is a little misleading in its implication of what H&M can and will do with all of the items it receives.
At the same time this campaign distracts everyone from the primary problem, which is the amount of cheap clothing that H&M continues to churn out – and which is the real reason for the environmental degradation the business is causing. Until H&M is willing to stop selling large quantities of clothes destined for a short life-span, it will not easily be able to offset this damage. And unfortunately its whole business model, and its success (in 2015 its global profits sat at $25 billion), is founded on the high turnover of cheap garments.
This is the real crux of the problem.
Which brings me to another criticism of the recycling scheme; for every bag-full of old items you hand in, you will receive a 15% discount voucher. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great incentive. But won’t this ultimately encourage more consumption? Again, we are back to the original problem.
Of course, unwanted clothing can be donated to someone in need. (H&M also does this with garments it collects and which are suitable for re-use.) So you might believe there isn’t a lot of clothing waste – especially here in SA where we are surrounded by people who are incredibly poor and will gladly put old garments to good use. (In the first world, much of the unwanted clothing goes directly to landfill.)
However, because fast fashion is producing such huge volumes of clothing, there is also a huge oversupply of unwanted clothing. This tends to end up in third world countries – and negatively impacts the economy and smaller clothing suppliers who operate there, and who cannot compete with free or incredibly cheap. (This is a great read to better explain the impact if international clothing donations.) (Also to add – I’m not sure how H&M’s donations are managed.)
What H&M are doing right
H&M are making, and promising more, sustainable progress, which is exciting.
- H&M is the second biggest user of organic cotton, the fourth biggest user of recycled polyester and the second biggest user of lyocell, all by volume.
- It was the first fashion brand to eliminate PFC chemicals from their products.
- It has been increasing its recycled content in their range – to about 1% of all clothing.
- H&M Foundation initiated the Global Change Award, to encourage others to find ways to better recycle old materials.
- It wants to move to a 100% circular business model, only creating garments from ‘waste’ items – although I could not find a date for when it expects to achieve this.
You can read the full H&M Sustainability Report 2015 here.
I think H&M’s goals are huge, so I am curious to see what happens next.
Do I think you shouldn’t shop at H&M, or partake in their recycling programme? Not necessarily. You know your options, and so now you can make your own best choice. And as included in my post on greenwashing, which H&M’s recycling programme could be accused of (“the sin of the hidden trade off”), TerraChoice’s 2010 The Sins of Greenwashing Report suggested greenwashing is not always necessarily ‘bad’: “Since most greenwashing is exaggeration rather than falsehood, you’re probably choosing a ‘greener’ product (it’s probably not as ‘green’ as it claims). And, every time you choose a ‘greener’ product, the market hears you say: ‘I like this. I want more green products. Please keep trying.’ (And the market will.)” This is, of course, is if you cannot afford a genuinely more sustainable alternative.
To help you decide what you can do, I have found into-mind.com’s 5 steps to build an ethical closet chart really useful, as it maps out sustainable priorities in an easy-to-understand way. It took a lot of guilt out of shopping for me!