Despite efforts to become “greener”, the fast-fashion pioneer does not genuinely contribute to a sustainable future. The problem lies within its core operating business model.

Recognizing corporate social responsibilities benefits, many companies today address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they contribute to reach the goals. Swedish retailer H&M, one of the most recognizable fashion brands, is no exception.

Many sustainability measures, but are they enough?

In the latest sustainability report, H&M claimed to have contributed directly and indirectly to all SDGs. Through initiatives such as reducing emissions in their supply chain, incorporating recycled materials in products, and maximizing product life through repair services, the message across the intensive 84-page report is very clear: H&M is doing their best to become a more sustainable company. However, careful analysis of their business model made us believe that H&M is not doing enough for sustainability as they claimed to be, specifically regarding Goal 12 “Responsible production and consumption”.

The problem of fast fashion

H&M adopted a “fast fashion” business model, where new clothing moves quickly, with lower quality and prices than their competitors. H&M does not wish to portray themselves as a “fast fashion” supplier, however, they are considered as one of the global industry leaders.

H&M consumes massive resources to produce billions of clothing pieces. Their efficient supply chain is also a big source of pollution. Their production line can be found in developing countries in Europe and Asia, but their products are sold all over the world, resulting in enormous emissions through transportation and shipping.

Furthermore, by constantly offering new collections at low prices, H&M has intentionally encouraged consumers to frequently buy and discard clothes. These proved that fast fashion has a great cost on the environment and is not in line with Goal 12, which is about increasing resource efficiency and promoting a sustainable lifestyle, as well as making economic profit while doing “green” investments (United Nations, n.d).

Fueling consumerism

H&M has been trying to advertise themselves as a sustainable business through various campaigns and initiatives, notably is the launch of their “Conscious” collection in 2016, offering sustainably made pieces. However, consumers and skeptics saw this as a cover-up solution in order to hide their attitude towards low-cost, high-volume, and trend-based business.

When H&M offers customers discount vouchers to donate clothing, it only fuels more consumption of fashion and continues to support the problems of the throwaway society.

Who is to blame?

Some might argue that H&M is producing loads of clothing as a response to market demands. If that is the case then all the blame should not be put on the industry, but rather the consumers. However, consumerism in terms of overproduction and consumption makes factories produce around 100 billion items of clothing each year. Clothing production exceeded 100 billion by 2014, which was a doubling since 2000.

Despite clothing production doubling in those years, the average person only buys 60% more clothes than what they did in 2000, and the lifetime of clothes has been reduced by 50%. This expansion in fast fashion has been led mainly by H&M and Zara, and given that the demand has increased less than production, we have to blame the industry for the overproduction issue.

The problem of overproduction

Furthermore, one pillar of H&M’s sustainability strategy is “Circular and Climate Positive”, the company aims to become a fully circular business that is climate positive by 2040. Yet H&M’s net emissions of direct and indirect emissions of greenhouse gasses increased by 18% in 2020. This result is interesting as the COVID-19 pandemic reportedly led to reduced orders and production. As such, they have seen a smaller demand for clothing and still produced more emissions of greenhouse gasses, this also goes to show that they do produce more than demanded.

 A new business model needed

Sustainability is nothing new to H&M. The company started to publish annual sustainability reports in 2002 and adopted SDGs from 2016. Still, H&M has chosen to neglect fast fashion model problems and continued to supply more clothes than demand to gain endless profit.

The company should bear the responsibility to reduce production to a sustainable level and make their clothes more durable. However, this is not in accordance with the definition of a player in the fast fashion industry. To comply with Goal 12, H&M would need to change their whole business model. Otherwise, they will never genuinely contribute to a sustainable future as they claimed.

Sources:

- Cobbing, M., & Vicaire, Y. (2017, September 7). Fashion at the crossroads. Greenpeace. 
- Troberg, A., & Söderlund, C. (2021, March 22). H&M group sustainability performance report. H&M Group. 
- United Nations. (n.d). Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. 

 

Winner of Opinion Essay Competition 2021

This essay is the winner of this year's BIs sustainability opinion essay competition. The students received a prize of 5000 NOK. Read more about the competition.

 

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