While fast fashion greenwashing is not new (H&M launched their “conscious collection back in 2012), it’s reaching new levels.
Why the uptick? Are brands finally waking up to their role in the climate crisis? To their participation in modern-day slavery and sweatshops?
But more likely it’s the rising interest in purchasing “more sustainable” products from consumers.
An April 2020 survey by McKinsey found that 67% of respondents (who were based in Germany and the UK) “consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor.”
Another 2020 survey by Fashion Revolution found that 33% of respondents felt that it’s important the clothing they buy was made “in a way that is not harmful to the environment” and 21% of respondents purchased clothing that was “made in an environmentally responsible way” in the previous 12 months.
It’s clear there is money to be made in more eco-conscious and “sustainable” fashion.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with large numbers of people driving the decisions of brands — in fact that’s fantastic!
The problem is when brands try to profit off of marketing sustainability without actually doing the work to fundamentally change their unsustainable models.
The fast fashion brand has been promoting their “Conscious” collection for nearly a decade. These products are made up of at least 50% “more sustainable materials” such as organic cotton or recycled polyester.
And the brand recently partnered with with Maisie Williams, who is H&M’s newest “Global Sustainability Ambassador”.
Maisie explains in an Instagram post that she “will be working closely with experts within H&M to drive their sustainability initiatives and shape the path towards an accessible and circular fashion future. The long term goal is to use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials for textiles across the entire H&M Group by 2030.”
But fast fashion can never be “conscious” or “circular”. The H&M Group (which includes H&M, COS, Monki, Weekday, & Other Stories, Cheap Monday, H&M Home, and ARKET) sells an estimated 3 billion articles of clothing per year.
There is no percentage of recycled or organic materials that can make that level of production sustainable. And there is no level of recycling technology to make that “circular”.
Production like this is only possible because of a disposable approach to fashion that involves creating cheap, trendy clothes designed to fall apart or go out of style in a season — whichever comes first.
And unsurprisingly, with these production levels, H&M can’t sell through all of their product. In 2019, the company was sitting on $4.1 billion in unsold inventory. With how cheap their individual garments are, we can only imagine how many pieces that inventory was.
And what about the clothes that do get sold? How long are they in customer’s closets before they get discarded?
Fast fashion has been the main driver behind the 36% drop in utilization that has happened between 2000 and 2015.
This is thanks in large part to the culture of overconsumption that these brands and influencers promote.
What About Worker Rights?
People are part of sustainability too, so we cannot talk about sustainability initiatives without addressing the way a brand is treating the people in its supply chain.
Let’s see how H&M is doing on this front.
After the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, H&M launched a “roadmap” to living wages. The brand announced that all 850,000 workers in their supply chain would receive a living wage by 2018. Once H&M made this PR announcement, they got plenty of media coverage, further bolstering their image, consumer perception, and likely their sales too.
However, there was no third-party accountability to this commitment and it was not legally binding. So surprise, surprise… 2018 came and the number of factory workers receiving living wages remained at “zero“, according to H&M’s head of production David Savman. And H&M’s living wage “roadmap” mysteriously disappeared from their website.
The company has still failed to deliver living wages for the workers in their supply chains three years later in 2021. According to FashionChecker.org, H&M makes no claim and no public evidence was found that any of its suppliers pay living wages.
So the brand got the PR and the boost in brand perception from these living wage claims, but yet workers never benefited.
In the same year of the living wage roadmap deadline (2018), Stefan Persson — who is the son of H&M’s founder and H&M’s largest shareholder — received $793 million in share dividends. This is enough to pay the annual salaries of 32,000 H&M retail associates. (Source: Remake and PayUp Fashion)
Based on the estimate that the average Bangladeshi garment worker takes an amount he equivalent of $112 USD per month and $1,344 per year, that would have been enough to double the salaries of 590,030 Bangladeshi garment workers.
Take a moment to let that sink in: the dividends received by one individual (so probably not even his entire income for the year) could double the salaries for over half a million garment workers.
These workers are currently receiving below living wages and could use that money to cover the most basic needs — food, clean water, transportation, housing, and education.
There is a real human cost to this model. “Ethical fashion” is not just a theoretical concept. We are talking about the lives of human beings.
So, what does H&M say now?
The brand states that “making sure garment workers are paid fairly is a big challenge for the fashion industry” at the top of their page on wages.”
Really, H&M? A multi-billion-dollar corporation can’t figure out how to pay workers the living wage of just $443 per month to its Bangladeshi garment workers? Somehow this isn’t adding up.
And H&M goes on to say that “like most fashion companies, we don’t own any factories or make our own clothes – we outsource production to independent manufacturers. This means we don’t pay garment workers’ salaries, nor can we decide how much they are paid.”
H&M is diverting the blame onto factories as if they had no choice in the matter to outsource their production.
They don’t talk about the fact that they do not own their own factories because they chose not to own their factories. The reason H&M doesn’t own factories or pay garment workers is so that they could reduce their own risks and not have to take responsibility for the conditions in these factories.
And, another reason that huge fashion brands like H&M don’t own their factories is so that they can easily move on to the next country to lower their cost of production even further when the minimum wage goes up and worker rights are more heavily enforced.
Brands like H&M outsource because it is highly advantageous for them to do so. To use this as an excuse for not ensuring living wages is just unacceptable.
So has H&M done anything about wages? Yes, but the improvements have been very minor.
H&M points out that the “presence of trade unions in factories positively affected wages by an average of 5.5%”. (Which is proof that garment worker unionizing is so central to improving the fashion supply chain!)
Something concerning, though, is that H&M states on their website that “increasing efficiency by 10% has proven to increase wages on average by 3.8%, strengthening our view that productivity is an enabler for higher wages.”
First of all, is higher and higher productivity really necessary to increase wages? Garment workers already work an average of 10-12 hours per day according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Is H&M ensuring that “productivity” doesn’t come at the expense of skipping breaks or working longer and/or more intense hours?
Could H&M not have increased worker pay without productivity increases? (The answer is yes as this piece on living wages outlines.)
And further, shouldn’t a productivity increase of 10% lead to a much higher increase in wages than under 4%? If you’re producing 10% more product in the same amount of time with the same number of workers, why are the workers seeing less than half of that? Where is the rest going?
It’s also unclear if these wage increases are adjusted for inflation. (Given the lack of mention of inflation, one would assume not.) The inflation rate in Bangladesh has been between 5-6% in recent years, meaning the cost of goods and services in Bangladesh has risen at a faster rate than the increase in wages. So even a wage increase of 3.8% would be a decrease of income in real economic terms that account for inflation.
This seems like an appropriate time to bring up the fact that H&M Stefan Persson is worth over $20 billion and was among the top 100 richest people in the world in 2021.
In other words, it’s not that the H&M Group doesn’t have the money to pay factories — and consequently workers — more. They just choose to use that money differently.
What about this model is “conscious”, exactly?
Primark Cares is Primark’s (attempt at) social and ecological responsibility.
In March, Laura Whitmore (1.4M followers) announced that she was a “Primark Cares Ambassador” with the brand with a post saying “Sustainability should be accessible to all!”
She went on to say that she was excited to be part of the conversation with a brand “that is playing a vital role in making change for the future”.
For starters, Primark should have found someone who is *actually* an expert in sustainability to weigh in and get honest with them about what needs to improve.
Second, what “vital role” is this brand playing in sustainability?
There is nothing sustainable about producing massive amounts of short-lived clothes designed to be discarded next season.
And is a brand profiting from the exploitation of garment workers really an expert on creating a better future for the world?
These are difficult but necessary questions influencers need to be asking before signing on to a campaign. Now let’s explore just how bad Primark’s human rights’ record is.
Human Rights Violations
Primark was one of the brands connected to the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 and injured 2,500 more.
Primark also does not claim nor does it provide any evidence that any of its suppliers pay living wages.
And, Primark was one of the companies that canceled massive amounts of in-production and completed orders. The brand canceled £250 million worth of orders when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
Only after months of intense pressure did the brand eventually pay partially for about 20% worth of the canceled orders and then finally paid in full in September. (Source)
More recently, Primark made headlines when one of their suppliers in Burma (Myanmar) locked in garment workers to prevent them from joining anti-coup protests.
While this may seem outside of Primark’s control, workers and unions had actually been calling on brands for weeks prior to stand up for worker’s rights to participate in strikes without being fired. Brands failed to step up and workers paid the price.
In short, Primark Cares is nothing more than greenwashing. Primark’s business model of churning out endlessly more disposable clothes can never be sustainable and the brand’s lack of ensuring basic human and worker rights is far from “caring”.
How to Take Action Against Fast Fashion Greenwashing
Okay, so what do we do next? Here are some ways to get involved in demanding better and stopping the greenwashing in fashion.
1. Visit PayUpFashion.com, a project of Remake. PayUp Fashion has 7 demands from brands that were created in collaboration with garment workers, and experts in labor, law, and grassroots organizing. Sign the petition and share it out with your network!
2. Comment on these brands’ social media posts and share about this on social media and use the hashtag #PayYourWorkers. Email the brands. If you have bought something from these brands, write a product review talking about how you’re concerned about their lack of concern for worker rights.
3. Talk to your friends and family about these issues. Tell them about what’s happening. Share this article with them!
4. Push for legal accountability. Voluntary commitments, statements, or plans from brands without any legal teeth will not get us to where we need to be. (As we can see clearly from H&M’s roadmap!) We need to look past the PR hype and dig deeper if we’re serious about meaningfully improving the fashion industry.
One of the most powerful examples of this was the Bangladesh Accord. The accord was the “first modern legally-binding agreement between workers, factory managers, and apparel companies”.
This agreement requires brands and retailers accountable for safety inspections and necessary renovations. It was (and is) so huge because previously, brands just had voluntary measures with little accountability or transparency.
And the results have been powerful. The inspections found almost 130,000 safety violations and the majority have been addressed. While there is still a way to go, there have been meaningful improvements and there are plans in action to continue the steps forward. [Check out the full report here.]
Other examples of powerful legislation include the Garment Worker Protect Act in California and Germany’s Mandatory Due Diligence Law.
5. Join a Community. While these types of efforts may seem overwhelming, you can join an existing network to get involved!
Advocacy organization Remake has an Ambassador Program that offers tons of resources plus hosts monthly meetings with information on how to get involved in campaigns. I am part of this program and highly recommend it!