Can Fast Fashion Really Be Good? We Sat Down With H&M To Find Out.

"There needs to be a change."

"Fashion and quality at the best price, in a sustainable way," reads retail clothing behemoth H&M's description on Facebook. But for many of us who know a thing or two about fashion and its supply chain, fast fashion is hardly synonymous with sustainability. 

A couple of weeks ago we got a chance to sit down with Catarina Midby, H&M's sustainable fashion advisor, backstage at Fashion-Culture-Design, an "unconference" at Parsons School Of Design here in New York City, after she flew in from London for a panel discussion with other industry experts. We got to discuss H&M's sustainability efforts and tried to find an answer to a not-so-easy question: 

Can fast fashion be manufactured responsibly?

H&M would like us to believe so. 

As a company, H&M is focusing on and investing in sustainability more than any other fast-fashion retailer. This includes launching their Conscious collection back in 2013,  partnering up with The World Wide Fund for Nature on water conservation strategies, educating farmers on how to grow cotton that is better for the environment, and, most recently, launching World Recycle Week

During the week, H&M aimed to collect 1,000 tons of unwanted garments and contribute towards closing the loop in fashion, "where old clothes can be turned into new ones."

"We collected 1,100 tons of garments, so we reached our goal," Midby told A Plus.

Catarina Midby, H&M's sustainable fashion advisor
Catarina Midby, H&M's sustainable fashion advisor

"What is really good about the program is that normally when you go to Oxfam or Redcross — which is also great — they sell mainly for rewear," she added. "Whereas with our partner, I:Collect, [H&M] can actually recycle 97% of what we collect [...]. That way we can close the loop in fashion as we make new clothes out of the old ones."

But Jennifer Gilbert, the Chief Marketing Officer of H&M's partner I:Collect, had conflicting information on the topic. As she explained A Plus, only an extremely small portion of clothes can be recycled into new ones because the necessary technology doesn't yet exist.

"Sixty percent of all the items we collect from our 60 partners worldwide is rewearable/reusable," she told A Plus.

The rest is recycled into secondary materials like cleaning cloths, and processed to reclaim their fibers for insulation, carpet padding, and filling material. Only 2 percent can be technologically upcycled or fiber-to-fiber recycled and used for new clothes. 

To have retailers offering a convenient way to either donate or recycle our unwanted garderobe pieces is fantastic. But to claim that H&M can close the loop in fashion is a stretch. A stretch of 98 percent, to be exact. 

60%: Rewearable; 15%: Processed to secondary materials for new products like cleaning cloths; 20%: Processed to reclaim fibers for insulation material, carpet padding etc.; 2%: Fiber recycled to fiber; 3%: Waste
60%: Rewearable; 15%: Processed to secondary materials for new products like cleaning cloths; 20%: Processed to reclaim fibers for insulation material, carpet padding etc.; 2%: Fiber recycled to fiber; 3%: Waste

"H&M appears to amount to more of greenwashing, the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that significantly minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of their businesses) than actual changes," Julie Zerbo, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Fashion Law, who also participated in the  Fashion-Culture-Design panel discussion with Midby, told A Plus in an email. "Their recent Recycling Week [...] is just one example of the big game they speak and fail to back up in the ways they promise. 

But Zerbo is not the only one in the industry who is skeptical of H&M's Recycle Week efforts.

Julie Zerbo, Catarina Midby, Dominic Rushe and Julie Gilhard at Fashion-Culture-Design conference.
Julie Zerbo, Catarina Midby, Dominic Rushe and Julie Gilhard at Fashion-Culture-Design conference.

"Using publicly available figures and average clothing weights, it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste," writes The Guardian's Lucy Siegle. "Meanwhile, if 1,000 tons is recycled, that roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours."

In an interview with A plus, Midby, however, seemed to question Siegle's calculations.

"Lucy Siegle is very anti-H&M, unfortunately," Midby said. "I don't know on what she bases [her calculations] on. [....] We work quite scientifically."

While Siegle did not reveal her exact sources in the interest of protecting their professional privacy, she walked A Plus through her calculations. These are based on how many pieces of clothing would be in 1000 tons of garments, and how many years it would take them to recycle all of them into textile fibre at the rate of 20 percent per new garment, the figure stated in H&M's sustainability report, and their ambition of 1.2 million pieces a year.

"I have a huge love for supply chain innovation and fresh strong authentic sustainability marketing and I love profiling brands that do this," Siegle said. "Indeed I have done this throughout my career. Unlike many green and social justice writers, I believe sustainability marketing is important. It can, when authentic and deeply rooted be a major force in the transition to a sustainable economy. When initiatives, programs, whatever you want to call them don't add up, over claim or set out to distract in a very high profile way, it damages that whole transition."

Being eco-friendly, however, is not the only issue facing H&M as a fast-fashion retailer.

There's also the issue the of providing textile workers in South East Asia a fair living wage, working in conditions that do not endanger their lives, and equitable  job contracts.

"We believe that [everyone] working for H&M — even if you don't work [for us directly] and are producing [H&M] clothes [in our supplier factories] — should earn a fair living wage, [have] good working conditions, which we are really committed to fulfilling," Midby said.

But it looks like H&M still has a long way to go to achieve this. 

Back in 2013, the company announced its ambition to pay fair living wages by 2018 to their strategic suppliers. These suppliers currently produce 60 percent of their garments. While the salaries of strategic suppliers in Cambodia have indeed increased to $187.97 a month, garment workers said they would require $230 "to live with dignity."

There's also the fact that H&M picked only suppliers that are already above the industry's standard for the program and committed to fair living wages without clearly defining what they actually were.

"But how can we say what's a fair living wage?" Midby asks. "That's not our place [...]. We can strengthen the workers [and their skill development,] but we can't dictate."

Jason South / Fairfax Media / Getty Images
Jason South / Fairfax Media / Getty Images

We also discussed Sweatshop, an award-winning Norwegian documentary-style TV show featured on A Plus that follows four Scandinavian fashion bloggers around Cambodia as they expose the less than glamorous origins of fast fashion. In one of the episodes, exploited textile workers in Cambodia admit to manufacturing clothes for H&M and talk about unsafe working conditions, salaries that do not provide enough for food, the use of short-term contracts for years on end, and the practice of not renewing contracts for women who become pregnant.

"We are, of course, shocked [about what emerges in the series] too," Midby said. "Our suppliers have to comply with our code of conduct [...]. We do not accept discrimination of any kind, we do not accept termination of employment for pregnancy reasons for instance. So that is something that would be totally violating the code of conduct. It's shocking."

But as Zerbo argues, it is extremely convenient for H&M to blame their suppliers and argue that they are not liable as they don't own any of the factories.

"Legally they may not be, but that does not mean that they are not ethically in the wrong," she said in an email. "This has been a go-to excuse for many retailers when tragedies occur. My research, which has included speaking with reporters on the ground in Bangladesh and Cambodia, has revealed that a noteworthy number of suppliers have begun to address health and safety inadequacies in their factories. Factory owners have, in fact, begun investing in mechanisms to improve working conditions in response to the numerous garment factory incidents in the low-cost markets, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia. However, the implementation of such necessary measures – such as proving adequate fire exits, ventilation, first aid kits, water and working bathrooms for their employees (some of the most basic improvements) — requires monetary investments."

As a result, the output from these factories comes at an increased cost, according to Zerbo. Because fast-fashion retailers are generally unwilling to cut into their own bottom lines, most have opted to source only from those offering the lowest-cost items — ones that have done little, if anything — to provide safe workspaces.

In 2013, facing strong international pressure, H&M was the first brand to sign a commitment to create a garment industry in Bangladesh "in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses, or other accidents that could be prevented with reasonable health and safety measures." The move came after the Rana Plaza tragedy, in which more than 1,200 garment workers died in Bangladesh when a building of factories collapsed due to non-existent health and safety standards. 

Midby assures us that H&M is committed to having their clothes manufactured in safe conditions and working only with suppliers that comply with their code of conduct. But coming up on the three-year anniversary of the tragedy, H&M had yet to to install fire escapes in first-tier supplier factories. Fires leaving workers injured at H&M supplier factories in Bangladesh and deaths of garment workers in the industry continue to be reported, including numerous incidents in 2016.

So is this really "fashion and quality at the best price, in a sustainable way" as H&M claims? We'll let the facts speak for themselves.