H&M ethics: is H&M actually better than other high street shops?

H&M is one of the leading voices on the high-street when it comes to ethics and sustainability in fashion. It regularly tops the charts in “transparency” indexes.

But, transparency doesn’t mean the same thing as sustainability.

Talking about sustainability, or being more sustainable than your peers, doesn’t make you sustainable – even though it might seem that way. Just as drinking Diet Coke instead of Coke doesn’t make for a healthy drink. Or being nicer than Trump doesn’t necessarily make you nice.

So, are H&M ethics better than other high street shops?

The short, crude, highly simplified answer is ‘no’:

H&M is a fast fashion brand. Their whole business model is built on us buying more clothes, more often.

This is fundamentally unsustainable because it relies on using too much of the planet’s resources; involves polluting rivers and waterways with toxic dyes; and, importantly, requires super cheap labour in factories across the world. 

The biggest way H&M can be more sustainable is to produce significantly fewer clothes. But, as the second biggest retailer in the world, they’re not exactly keen to do this. 

So, with that option out of the window, the question is can a fast fashion brand be sustainable?

Fast Fashion, Fast Facts

How harmful can one top, or one dress really be? Well…

  • 100+ billion items of clothing are produced each year, most from virgin sources
  • 73% of the 53 million tonnes of fibres used to make clothes and textiles each year are burnt or sent to landfill
  • In the UK, 11 million items of clothing end up in landfill each week
  • 7 years worth of drinking water for one person – how much water it takes to produce one pair of jeans 
  • Washing synthetic clothes leads to 500,000 tonnes of microfibre, equivalent to 3 million barrels of oil, dumped into the ocean every year. 

If fashion is a way to express yourself, what exactly do your choices say about you?

To be clear, pretty much every high street brand and online brand is part of this system. You may think that Boohoo are better because they’re based in the UK. Or not even care because Shein/Missguided are so cheap and Little Mix look great in the latest Pretty Young Thing adverts.

That’s up to you to decide. 

But, before you decide – consider it’s a choice you’re lucky enough to be able to make. Reflect on the hundreds of thousands of cotton farmer suicides the Guardian reported on, back in 2014. Consider the millions of women being exploited and abused in factories around the world that the headlines ignore.

H&M ethics: is H&M different from Zara, Primark or Bond Street brands when it comes to paying a living wage?

The Clean Clothes Campaign’s Fashion Checker reveals which brands are paying a living wage. 

It shows that H&M turns over around €9.9 billion a year and makes €1.2 billion profit. 

Despite H&M making a public commitment to a Living Wage, the checker reveals: 

“The brand makes no claim and no public evidence was found that its suppliers are paying a living wage. Which means the brand cannot prove that the workers making their clothes earn enough to live on.”

In other words, they are promising to pay a living wage but are yet to provide any evidence to prove that they are doing so. 

The Pandemic Fund

This year, the Clean Clothes Campaign is campaigning for a ‘Pandemic Fund’ – an extra 10p per t-shirt, perhaps €2 for a pair of trainers. This will help to secure workers’ current work and cover a huge wage increase for workers (not offer a living wage, though).

This is an amount most of us would be happy to pay – but it’s not quite as simple as that. 

Clean Clothes Campaign

Why H&M and Primark share factories with Bond Street brands

One reason it’s hard to pay workers more is because brands share factories. For example, the same factory could b making clothes for H&M, Primark, Marks and Spencer etc.

This means the bands never have to accept full responsibility for the people who are making clothes for them – these workers aren’t directly employed by H&M or Primark, for example, they’re employees of the factory that H&M has a contract with. 

Although all brands have ‘Codes of Conduct’ these are rarely worth the paper they are written on because factory owners will sign, but not necessarily follow, the international labour agreements.

Brands will also negotiate low prices for their orders, without insisting that the garment workers salaries (already below living wage) are protected – which has the effect of pushing their salaries down futher.

As Paul Roeland from the Clean Clothes Campaign explains:

“The brands say ‘We’re only one buyer in the factory and paying more doesn’t mean the worker will get the extra money’.”

He agrees it’s a difficult problem, but says: 

“It’s a problem the brands negotiated themselves – they made it a race to the bottom. Now, they should be part of the solution as well.”

H&M sustainability: is H&M different from Zara, Primark or Bond Street brands?

Credit where credit’s due, H&M is at least talking about sustainability.

They’ve set a target of using 100 per cent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030, they aim to be climate positive by 2040. According to an interview with Vogue, H&M’s CEO Helena Helmersson’s ultimate goal is to move a 100 per cent circular model — one in which all products can be reused or fully decomposed.

It’s a beautiful vision.

However, Helmersson also says in the interview: “You can’t wait until you have all the answers to set the bold targets; you need to have the courage to set [them].”

They clearly didn’t have the answers when they set their target of paying 850,000 workers a living wage by 2018, back in 2013.

A living wage is something they still haven’t achieved.

“Factory owners in Bangladesh report that H&M’s buyers negotiate aggressively to lower the prices,” says Maria Sjödin, author of the Broke in Bangladesh report at Fair Action. This makes it difficult to raise wages.

“I run out of money about a week before I get paid, and then I have to borrow money from the neighbours to buy food,” says Faria Mustafi (name changed for privacy), 36, who works up to 13 hours a day for a factory producing for H&M in Bangladesh.

She rents an iron shack without a bathroom for her and her 15 year old daughter and shares a kitchen with over 20 other tenants.

H&M ethics: Conclusion

Perhaps, one of the biggest issues with H&M’s sustainability agenda is not so easy to measure. According to a Forbes interview with head of sustainability at H&M Anna Gedda in 2018: “The H&M group has a long history of working with sustainability, dating back to the 90s”.

This means they have been aware of the problems and leading the sustainability conversation for around 30 years.

They are at best well-intentioned and ineffective.

At worst, obstructive to justice.

And in the meantime, they have grown to be the second biggest retailer in the world.

And the family who owns H&M have grown in riches, too – with a fortune of €20 billion Stefan Persson is Sweden’s richest person by way of H&M, of which he owns 36%.

H&M ethics: so where can I shop?

Check out our fashion pages, for smaller brands that have sustainability and ethics at their core. 

Main image: https://lt.wikipedia.org/

About the author

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera

Lizzie Rivera is the founder and chief purpose officer at Live Frankly. She has been writing for mainstream publications for 10 years, specialising in sustainability and ethics since 2014.


to Our Newsletter

GDPR - You agree to let us email you occasionally. You are in control of your data and can unsubscribe at any time.
See our Privacy Policy for details.

Want trustworthy insights straight to your inbox?

We believe you can have too much of a good thing, so we aim to delight and entertain about once a month.

GDPR - You agree to let us email you occasionally. You are in control of your data and can unsubscribe at any time.
See our Privacy Policy for details.