Looking beyond COP26, H&M says it envisions a fossil-free supply chain.
The Swedish retailer revealed Friday that it has committed to halving its emissions every 10 years in alignment with the “carbon law,” a “rule of thumb” that Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Centre says will give the planet a fighting chance of keeping global temperature rises within the 1.5-degree-Celsius Paris Agreement target. By 2030, H&M says it will slash its carbon footprint by 56 percent from a 2019 baseline.
To help it get there, the United Nations Fashion Charter for Climate Action signatory says it will no longer onboard suppliers that use coal-based solutions to run their facilities starting January 2022. The world’s second-largest apparel company after Inditex will also “increase our investments going forward, build knowledge, expertise and use our local presence to align not only our ambitions but also our performance with science.” It plans to continue leveraging partnerships, such as the one it inked earlier this month with Madrid-based Matrix Renewables to help it source 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations “not later” than 2030.
The news comes on the heels of an analysis by Stand.earth, which noted a “slight” 1.7 percent increase in H&M’s supply-chain emissions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unless H&M takes “serious action” to phase out coal and switch to renewable energy, the environmental nonprofit said, the fast-fashion chain is projected to “fail” to reduce its footprint in line with the 1.5-degree-Celsius pathway.
Stand.earth has also criticized brands and retailers for remaining in thrall to fossil fuels in all its forms, including synthetic materials such as polyester, which is derived from coal and fracked gas. Synthetic fibers, which are produced and sold cheaply, make up 69 percent of all materials used in textiles today, according to petrochemical analytics firm Tecnon OrbiChem. By 2030, they will account for more than 75 percent,
“With the booming use of polyester in the fashion sector, fracking is not only a climate issue but also a significant environmental justice issue in the United States and other countries due to its toxic pollution in local communities,” Muhannad Malas, senior climate campaigner at Stand.earth, previously told Sourcing Journal. “It’s not something that fashion brands should be promoting and they need to get out of that business model very quickly.”
Even recycled polyester made from plastic bottles, which companies are increasingly leaning into to prove their environmental bonafides, is a sustainability “wrong turn,” since that material cannot be recycled again at scale, the organization says. By competing with soda companies for empties, brands are removing plastic bottles from a “truly circular” system that allows them to be remade multiple times.
H&M, which recently rolled out a PETA-approved collection, has defended its use of polyester, recycled or otherwise, by noting that the industry needs a “mix of natural and synthetic fibers to create clothes that last and that people want to wear again and again.” Synthetics, it wrote on its website in June, outperform their natural counterparts for sportswear “every time,” especially when it comes to wicking away moisture.
Still, so-called “preferred fibers” play a central role in H&M’s sustainability strategy. By 2030, the retailer promises to use only materials that are recycled or otherwise sustainably sourced, which has led to investments into startups like Infinited Fiber Company and Renewcell. It’s been ramping up the development of the Green Machine, a recycling platform developed with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel that extracts polyester and cotton from blended textiles. Earlier this month, H&M announced a possible expansion of the technology into Cambodia in 2022 with buy-in from The North Face owner VF Corp.
“A big component of H&M Group’s journey to become climate positive is about transforming into a circular business,” said the company, which announced the upcoming launch of an open-source circular design tool at the Glasgow climate talks this week. “A business that optimizes resources and minimizes waste by designing and producing fashion in a way that keeps the resources in use for as long as possible before repurposing or recycling them again and again.”
But H&M’s detractors have also accused the retailer of greenwashing, insisting that its assertions are too nebulous or that it can never be sustainable because of the volume of clothing it pumps out every year. According to a recent report by the Changing Markets Foundation, 96 percent of the company’s green claims flout the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority’s new guidelines “in some way.” Terms like “preferred,” “sustainably sourced” and ”sustainably made,” for instance, are rarely well-defined and therefore constitute “unsubstantiated claims that mislead consumers,” the think tank said. Neither should products be described as “recyclable” if there’s no widely available fiber-to-fiber recycling solution to handle them.
Meanwhile, the Cos and Monki owner reiterated its desire to mitigate biodiversity loss. On Thursday, Helena Helmersson, CEO of H&M Group, and Marco Lambertini, director of WWF International, published a joint opinion piece urging companies to scale up action and governments to put in place “coherent policies and incentives” to slow climate change and the loss of nature.
Because more than half of the world’s gross domestic product is at risk from nature loss, “protecting nature is an economic imperative,” they said. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 estimates that natural disasters caused by human ecosystem disruption and climate change ring up more than $300 billion in damages every year. Pivoting to a nature-positive economy, on the other hand, could create annual business opportunities exceeding $10 trillion by 2030.
“Much still remains to be done, and voluntary and individual company action alone is not enough,” they said. “Sectoral transformation requires collective action and regulation that drives widespread reform. Recent weeks have seen encouraging moves from world leaders to reverse nature loss this decade. Building on commitments made in Glasgow, business and governments must together seize the moment to tackle nature loss and climate change. It is our last, best chance.”