Friday 8 May 2015

H&M Show Us The Problem At The Heart Of Fast Fashion

Last month, H&M launched its latest Sustainability Index. A positive document, it cheerfully outlined the upwards step change in the brand's use of organic cotton, the way it was lessening environmental impact and its social welfare programmes. It all seems pretty good, and a clear sign of how H&M takes its self-imposed role as the greenest chain on the high street seriously.
But, as Marc Bain of Quartz explains, there's a little more to it than that. The trouble with a global brand like H&M is that it simply can't be sustainable. The problem? The fast fashion model itself.
H&M is a volume business. It makes money by manufacturing vast amounts of clothes and selling them cheaply. For H&M to profit, those clothes have to fly off the shelves. Head of the company Karl-Johan Persson has boasted of the fact that you will see different ranges in his stores from week to week, and he expects to see the racks refreshed daily.
In fact, the clothing giant manufactures over 600 million items a year, across a store footprint that's growing by 10% a year. More clothes means more demand for cotton, which even in its organic form is a thirsty plant that needs lots of water to grow at the volume required. Clothing manufacture requires a lot of water, and in the regions where H&M make their clothes like China and Bangladesh, water access is becoming a big problem.
More clothes means more demand for power and oil. Transportation, one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gases, is a major stumbling block to any company pushing sustainability. Those clothes don't get into the stores worldwide by solar-powered rickshaw.
And then there's issue of what happens to those clothes at the end of their life. H&M are doing their best, working hard on research into cradle-to-cradle models. But currently 0.2% of H&M's clothing contains any sort of recycled material. It's great that they're using more organic cotton. But most of it is still destined for landfill.
It's good to see sustainability reports coming from such a major player--even five years ago this would have seemed unthinkable. It's clear that H&M are working towards being the best that they can be in terms of emissions, in moving away from pesticides, and in worker relations. The trouble is that these are tiny changes in a vast model that is, by dint of its very existence, bad for the planet.

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