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What the H&M scandal reveals about the fast fashion industry

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Fast fashion brands, such as H&M, have been accused of greenwashing for a long time now. For every accusation, these companies have come up with numerous ideas to be more sustainable but an investigation from Aftonbladet, a Swedish media, has debunked one of H&M's biggest greenwashing technics. So what happened? And how truly sustainable can a fast fashion brand be?

In June, a Swedish media published an investigation on what happens to clothes put in the recycled bins at H&M. To back track a little bit, the Swedish garment company rolled out a program in 2013 to recycle clothes. And today, the brand has the most established and widespread of in-store recycling programs, with bins in many of its more than 4200 stores worldwide. The idea is for people to come to the stores, put their clothes in the recycled boxes and receive a “thank you voucher”, aka a discount for their next purchase.

Then three different scenarios can happen, according to H&M. "The wearable clothes are marketed as secondhand clothing" and can be bought on the H&M Rewear website. "If the clothes or textiles are not suitable for rewear, they are turned into other products, such as remake collections or cleaning cloths." The third scenario, for the items that didn’t make it into rewear or remake, "are shredded into textile fibers and used to make, for example, insulation materials". The company also explains on its website that it partnered with I:Collect, a well-known sustainability initiative in the textile industry, and that the sorting takes place at a facility outside Berlin.

In theory, the clothes dropped in the recycling boxes in H&M stores would either be reused or repurposed. Or at least, it’s what the company promises with its recycling program. But according to the journalists at Aftonbladet, this is not true: it’s simply greenwashing.

So what did the investigation reveal?

The Swedish journalists dropped ten garments equipped with air tags (a type of tracker that uses Bluetooth technology) at eight different H&M stores in and around Stockholm. Within a few weeks, all garments left Sweden and ended up at three different sorting facilities in Germany. But none of the addresses were the I:Collect's sorting facility, as H&M stated on its website.

Overall, it is clear from the investigation that the clothes have emitted more carbone dioxide than expected for a program that is supposed to be sustainable. In total, the journalists estimated that the ten garments together travelled 5792 miles or 9321km. Not only have the clothes moved from place to place, but some of the garments ended up in clothing dumps. For instance, one of the items went to the city of Cotonou in Benin, another went to Johannesburg in South Africa and another went to the city of Panipat in northern India. There some clothes might be reused by someone but they most likely end up on landfill or burnt.

After the publication of the article, H&M replied by saying that they are "categorically against clothes becoming waste" and it goes against their "work to create a more circular fashion industry". "We know that there are still challenges associated with the collection and recycling of clothes and textiles, but we also see that more scalable solutions in textile recycling are being developed, which is very positive. The H&M group is actively working on the issue and is also investing in such solutions."

The fashion chain also shut down the page with the information about the collaboration with I:Collect, explaining that they no longer work with them and started working with Remondis in 2023. After the investigation, the journalists asked both sorting companies to comment on the topic and both declared that "their bales contain only saleable clothes and therefore do not consider themselves contributing to the environmental problem".

So are H&M and these sorting companies really trying to do their best and the investigation only pinpointed what they still need to work on? Are they completely oblivious to what is happening?

In my opinion, they know what is happening. What the Swedish journalists have found is not an unfortunate coincidence but the reality of the fashion industry. And regardless of what these companies say, they are aware of what they do and they are not trying to change anything.

To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2700 litres of fresh water are required. This is enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.

When I was checking the website of the two sorting companies, I couldn’t help but find it very ironic to read: "almost 150 million tons of clothing and shoes are sold worldwide every year. The majority ends up in landfills or is incinerated instead of being reused or recycled, wasting valuable resources and causing great harm to the environment".

According to the European Parliamentary research service (EPRS), less than half of used clothes are, indeed, collected for reuse or recycling. And only 1% of used clothes are recycled into new ones, since technologies that enable clothes to be recycled into virgin fibres are only now starting to emerge. That’s because many of our clothes are made of blended fibres, so they don't break down easily. On top of that, recycling cotton and wool, for example, diminishes the quality of the material. But H&M already knows that. The company wants consumers to believe that recycling is easy although H&M knows it is not.

An example of that, is their remake collection. When someone puts their clothes in the recycling bins, one of the options is to make new clothes out of the old ones. When I looked for the remake collection online and I tried the book an appointment to remake a piece of clothing into something new, the page wasn’t functioning. The website has no contact information on it and, apart from pictures of a factory in Sweden, there is no information whatsoever on how it works, who we can ask for help, nothing. So I don’t know how many new clothes they made from old ones, but I believe it is very few.

But the problem does not only lie in what happens to clothes when we are tired of them. The production of textile is very wasteful, it takes a lot of water and land. According to the EPRS, to make a single cotton t-shirt, 2700 litres of fresh water are required. This is enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years. The textile sector was the third largest source of water degradation and land use in 2020, reported the European Environment Agency.

On top of that, fast fashion brands such as H&M often opt for synthetic fibres because they are cheaper and washing synthetic products has caused more than 14 million tonnes of microplastics to accumulate on the bottom of the oceans. The fashion industry is also estimated to be responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions which is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Once again, H&M already knows this. The reason why the company keeps focusing on textile recycling is because it makes the group look like it is doing something when in reality, moving the needle, involves changing completely its production model.

For instance, when someone wants to sell their clothes with H&M Rewear program, the brand keeps making money. On the Rewear website, it is written that "15% of selling price will be deducted by Rewear. If you choose to get paid with an H&M gift card, you will receive an increase of 20% on your selling price". When people put clothes in the recycling boxes in the stores, they get a discount for their next purchase. These examples show how H&M tries to direct the attention of consumers. "The problem is the recycling not the production", the company seems to say.

For the fast fashion industry, it is better to point their fingers at the consumers and make them believe that they are the problem because they overconsume. Luckily for us consumers, these brands have the solution to our problem: we can keep buying without worrying because they will recycle what we don’t use or like anymore…


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