Can H&M separate its environmental sustainability from its lack of social sustainability?

Even though it's typically used as a general term, "sustainability" can be split into two sectors: environmental sustainability and social sustainability. Unfortunately, brands and consumers have a hard time distinguishing between those terms leading to misunderstanding and misleading advertising. H&M is one such brand that has given consumers the wrong idea of its progress on sustainability. While making big investments in environmental sustainability, H&M has few accomplishments when it comes to social sustainability. This hurts the brand's overall image and leads consumers to think it is merely "greenwashing". Now H&M needs to figure out how to separate its environmental sustainability work or risk further repercussions.

Despite its reliance on the fast fashion model, H&M Group and its brands have made progress on environmental sustainability.

The biggest critique against H&M's environmental impact is the rate of production. H&M depends on the fast fashion model, meaning it produces and sells many clothes with low profit margins. Unfortunately, it appears that H&M will continue to rely on that method despite recent shifts that point the company in the direction of more sustainability. New CEO Helena Helmersson said that H&M would continue to follow fast fashion production, even though she is the former sustainability officer and champions a more sustainable future. To be both fast fashion and sustainable, Helmersson and H&M Group invest in circularity — specifically recycling. Millions of dollars, including a recent $9 million influx of cash, have been used to grow small textile recycling startups like Renewcell. And clothing recycling is nothing new to H&M; the company first started embracing the practice in 2013 with its global garment collection program's launch. Other than waste reduction, H&M is embracing lowering carbon emissions and using more natural and organic materials. The combination of these different initiatives and the dedication to recycling shows an H&M that, while far from being perfect, is trying to make progress in terms of environmental sustainability.

When it comes to social sustainability, though, H&M is really lacking.

If the fashion retailer's environmental sustainability could be considered moderately reasonable, its social sustainability is nonexistent. H&M has continuously been caught up in labor scandals include the most recent Uighur abuse and #PayUp wrongdoings. The retailer was caught sourcing from factories that use Uighur labor. This human rights disaster has caused global outrage against the Chinese government and the companies working with Chinese manufacturers. H&M was also called out by nonprofit organization Remake for its cancellation of orders and refusal to pay garment workers during the pandemic. H&M quickly changed course when the #PayUp campaign was formed, and the brand has since agreed to pay back owed money. However, H&M has not opted to keep workers safe, which is another demand from Remake. And these are just the scandals that have occurred in the last year. Before 2020, H&M was frequently accused of not protecting garment makers and not meeting promises for more ethical practices.

If H&M wants to position itself as an environmentally sustainable company, it needs to confront its rocky relationship with social sustainability.

It is difficult for H&M to claim it is sustainable when the brand does not value its supply chain employees or care about its impact on people. Consumers are less likely to believe H&M is environmentally sustainable if it does not address social sustainability as well. If the retailer continues to make progress with environmental sustainability only, it needs to label it in advertising and industry reporting clearly. That will give the brand some cover from claims that it is misleading consumers with false marketing. H&M could also take the easier route, putting up an equal amount of money for social sustainability initiatives. That way, the company is making progress in all sustainability areas. This would match up with what H&M advertises and what consumers expect from a multi-billion dollar corporation. Whether it is through distinction or further investment, H&M needs to clarify its sustainability position to avoid legal and financial repercussions.

The Bottom Line:

H&M is far from environmentally-friendly, but the mega-retailer has invested quite a bit of money on environmental sustainability projects like clothing recycling. That investment is continuously clouded by the company's dismal social sustainability practices, though. H&M either needs to distinguish between the two types of sustainability, or it needs to make an equal investment in social sustainability to boost the overall image of the brand.

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