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Is H&M Ethical? It Depends on Whom You Ask

When H&M debuts its eighth Conscious Exclusive collection on Thursday, it will be the first time it’s done so for the autumn/winter season.

“Usually they’re in the springtime,” said Emily Scarlett, head of the Swedish retailer’s U.S. communications, at a luncheon last week previewing the upcoming pieces at Blue Hill at Stone Farms in Tarrytown, N.Y. “But we had two very fall-ish fabrics, which was why we wanted to do a fall collection.”

The two “fall-ish fabrics”? Recycled cashmere respun from leftover yarn, along with a tufted velvet derived from reclaimed polyester.

Awash in a romantic palette of black, dusky rose, mustard yellow, faded blue, off white and light gray, the lineup also includes some oldies but goodies, including recycled PET, in the form of a sequined floral jacket, and recycled wool, which features in a full-length coat with an oversized collar and thigh-high side slits. There is a printed organic-silk dress with billowy sleeves and a plunging V-neck in the back, a sleeveless top dripping with recycled-velvet streamers, and slingback stilettos that flaunt ribbons made from recycled polyester and Tencel.

The collection, Scarlett noted, is inspired by “artifacts and architecture and tapestry, which you can really see through some of the fabrication and some of the blouses, which have sort of a tapestry print to them.”

H&M has produced these higher-end versions of its eco-friendly label-within-a-label since Earth Day 2011, when it first feted garments made from organic cotton, organic linen, Tencel and recycled polyester as part of an ongoing effort. Previous attempts at sustainability were more perfunctory, such as the limited-edition “Waste” line it made using remnants from a previous collaboration with Lanvin and an eco-friendly “Garden” collection it announced, most inauspiciously, just as a scandal involving the slashing and trashing of unsold stock at one of its Manhattan stores began to swirl.

Susan Rockefeller, the filmmaker and philanthropist who hosted the event, acknowledges that H&M, as a purveyor of fast fashion will continue to make clothing of the cheaper and more disposable kind because “that is what it does.”

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“But I also think that they have this wonderful opportunity to innovate in the sustainability space,” she said. “I think that philosophically we all need to buy less and keep things for a longer period of time. [At the same time], the massive amount of people who can’t afford luxury fashion need things that are more sustainable. If companies like H&M can move the technology toward closed loop and reuse of materials and recycled content, we will have a better environment and better health for everybody.”

Indeed, H&M has set some moonshot goals when it comes to sustainability. While its Conscious items—which can be identified by their green hang tags—are still siloed away from the main line, the apparel chain has pledged to use 100 percent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. (That number currently stands at 35 percent, according to Scarlett.) By 2040, H&M says it will become climate-positive across its entire value chain, meaning it will curtail more greenhouse-gas emissions than it generates. The company also has committed to use 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations, up from 96 percent today.

Its milestone moments are nothing to scoff at, either. In 2013, H&M became the first fashion company to establish a global garment take-back program, which it mines for material for its semi-regular line of recycled denim. It has inked partnerships with the likes of the World Wildlife Fund to boost responsible water use throughout its global supply chain; it’s been praised by Greenpeace for eliminating a number of toxic substances and disclosing its supplier lists; and it is one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel. The company’s myriad memberships include the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Textile Exchange, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (both old and new), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Fibres Initiative, the Global Fashion Agenda and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals.

Plus, the H&M Foundation helps promote potentially world-changing ideas for the circular economy through its annual Global Change Awards, elevating startups like Circular Systems, which turns agricultural trash into textile treasure, and Fungi Fashions, which leverages mushroom roots and 3-D technology to create bespoke apparel that doesn’t need to be cut and sewn.

That’s not to say H&M doesn’t have its detractors, of course. Environmentalists continue to question whether churning out massive quantities of clothing at breakneck speed can be sustainable when even the most promising recycling technologies—including H&M’s own partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel—are still years away from attaining scale. At present, fewer than 1 percent of the materials used to create clothing is recycled into new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Workers’ rights groups frequently lambast the retailer for making vague (at best) and misleading (at worst) claims about progress on its fair living wage strategy, which H&M says is meant to “create the foundation and processes” for fair living wages for the workers that make its clothes.

In a damning report published Monday, the Clean Clothes Campaign asserted that workers making H&M’s clothes live below the poverty line despite the retailer promising in 2013 to ensure pay structures that dole out a fair living wage to 850,000 textile workers by 2018.

“We knew that H&M had not met its commitment by the beginning of this year, but some of the concrete findings about wages and related working conditions in H&M supplier factories still came as a shock,” Bettina Musiolek, the campaigner who coordinated the research, said in a statement. “H&M needs to take action immediately to stop the scandal of poverty wages and workers’ rights violations.”

H&M immediately hit back at the allegations, which campaigners detailed at www.turnaroundhm.org, saying of Clean Clothes Campaign,“We respect their opinion and we are working towards the same vision—that textile workers should earn a living wage—but we don’t share their view of the textile industry and how to best achieve progress.”

A spokesperson added, “First, there is no universally agreed level for living wages, and second, wage levels should be defined and set by the parties on the labour market through fair negotiations between employers and workers representatives, not by Western brands. This is something we, industry experts, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and trade unions agree upon.”

H&M said its efforts with other brands, IndustriAll Global Union, the ILO and other partners have helped strengthen workers’ voices, enabled negotiation at the factory and industry levels and helped garner improvements for all garment workers, no matter the factory they work in or the brands they produce for. Its fair living wage strategy, the company adds, has reached more than 600 factories and 930,000 garment workers, meaning “we have exceeded our very first milestone.”

So how ethical or sustainable is H&M, really? It depends on whom you ask.

At the preview of the autumn/winter 2018 Conscious Exclusive collection in Tarrytown, where Susan Rockefeller and H&M held court, the air was far less controversial—or adversarial. Surrounded by lush, picturesque farmland bathed in golden sunshine on a seasonably warm afternoon, H&M took on a softer mien—one that it prefers its customers focus on.

And the retailer has other issues on its mind: plummeting stock prices, for one, not to mention sluggish sales that have yoked it with $4.3 billion in unsold clothing. (There are flickers of a potential turnaround, however.)

Whether H&M and its critics might find a happy medium one day remains to be seen. For Rockefeller, an avowed conservationist who said she never shopped at H&M until she found out about its Conscious collection, H&M’s clout as the second-largest fashion retailer after Spain’s Inditex offers more advantages than drawbacks.

“My interest in H&M is the fact that it is a global conglomerate,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest companies for fashion and fashion distribution, and we need to figure out how to responsibly clothe what will be 9 billion people by 2050. So how do we do that?”