H&M’s “Conscious” Collection: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Into the Hype

As soon as I walked in, I wanted to run out. All of the feelings of awkward adolescence came streaming back as the European house music blared in my ears and over-enthusiastic pre-teens bounced through the huge glass doors.

It was 2013 and I hadn’t stepped foot in an H&M store in nearly five years. Despite my unabashed dislike for the giant fast fashion retailer, its new “Conscious Collection” had recently launched and I wanted to know what all of the fuss was about.

Celebrities from Michelle Williams to Penn Badgley were donning “conscious” threads on the red carpet. Reputable media outlets were heralding H&M as the fearless leader in environmental integrity. So I wondered, could sustainable fashion finally be going mainstream?

I walked over to the first store manager I could find and a sprightly brunette in a faux leather jacket turned around to assist me.

“Hi, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the Conscious Collection,” I asked.

“I’m not sure what you mean… ” she replied back.

“You know, the new line of organic cotton and recycled fabrics… the eco-friendly stuff?” I attempted to explain.

Blank stare.

“Remember? Helen Hunt wore that navy gown on the red carpet? The Conscious… Collection…”

I trailed off.

If you keep up with sustainable fashion trends (or are just a really big H&M fan), you know that the company recently released its 2014 sustainability report.

In the first few pages of the document, H&M’s CEO Karl-Johan Persson says:

“In order to remain a successful business, we need to keep growing – and at the same time respect the planetary boundaries.”

I’ll be honest, I had to re-read that sentence a few times. My first thought was:

On what planet can you continue to produce 600 million garments per year and not exceed ecological boundaries?

The success of H&M is dependent on a strategy of planned obsolescence. Fast fashion can never truly be sustainable because the business model itself is inherently unsustainable.

If Persson is upfront about the company needing to grow (undoubtedly to keep shareholders happy), then all of the “conscious collections” in the world can’t do a thing for sustainability.

As long as the fast fashion business model remains the same, any attempt at a more sustainable future is simply a wash.

As Marc Bain of Quartz points out, “a landfill overflowing with organic cotton is still an overflowing landfill.”

So, why bring this up now when I’ve already argued this point before?

Last week, H&M launched a film campaign with actress Olivia Wilde to debut its new “Conscious Exclusive” collection for 2015.

And I’m here to say, don’t buy into the hype.

In an article from Fast Company, writer and editor Ariel Schwartz highlights an alarming study about consumer perception.

When over 1,000 people were asked to name the single most socially-responsible company they could think of, Chik-fil-A, Wal-Mart, P&G and Apple made the top 20 list.

That’s all to say that millions of dollars go into creating brands that communicate a certain consumer assumption — despite what’s actually going on in the supply chain and behind the scenes.

H&M’s “Conscious” print campaign is running the same month as the second-annual Fashion Revolution Day campaign and its film push with Olivia Wilde is starting the week leading up to Fashion Revolution Day on April 24. Coincidence?

If H&M wants consumers to categorize it with a global fashion revolution that is pushing to make change in the industry, then they’re doing a really good job. That kind of positioning isn’t happenstance.

In the past, H&M has been given international ethics awards, despite manufacturing about 25 percent of its clothing in factories in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is the lowest in the world.

It’s been named one of the best companies to work for despite 850,000 of its textile workers not being paid a fair and living wage.

And although H&M is one of the largest buyers of organic cotton, it still only accounts for 13.7% of its total garment production.

In 2015, H&M will produce over 600 million new garments. That’s an increase of 50 million articles of clothing from 2011. It will expand its physical locations by 10 to 15 percent every year, requiring the use of energy-intensive resources.

Each week, H&M will debut a new “season” of trends catapulting the old fashion calendar of 2-4 seasons per year into 52 micro-seasons.

All the while, the average American will continue discarding over 68 pounds of clothing into landfills annually.

Critics of mine will say, “Well, at least H&M is doing something. We can’t fault them for trying.”

To that I say:

If H&M was truly serious about sustainability, then it would focus on changing its business model — not on making more clothing under the guise of a feel-good name.

Photo credit: Fashion.Works

Ignore the Hype: Eco-Fashion Can Be Easy

This is a guest post from Beth Stewart, Strategic Director of Redress Raleigh.

There are so many things that people are expected to do as ‘eco-minded’ individuals – buy organic, not eat meat (or eat only certain kinds), ride a bike everywhere, take five minute showers, etc – it can be overwhelming. In addition, people are becoming more and more aware of the perils of fast fashion and the detrimental effects your purchasing choices can have on both humanity and the planet.

Redress_ResponsiblyMade_SquareGraphic - smallAs I have mentioned before, there is also a substantial amount of greenwashing or mixed messaging being spread through the media about what “eco-fashion” is and who is doing it.

However, dressing responsibly and making responsible apparel choices may not be as complicated as you think. There are many different aspects to consider when picking out your outfits and accessories – from water usage to chemicals to human ethics to type of material to location of production … just to name a few. As with every industry, there are trade-offs within fashion and textiles as well.

Luckily there are more and more fantastic options popping up for the ecochic customer. Consider these categories the next time you are shopping for clothing and accessories:

  • Upcycled
  • Made in USA
  • Handcrafted
  • Vintage or resale
  • Natural dyes
  • Fair trade
  • Organic or eco-friendly fabrics
  • Little to no-waste patternmaking

Honestly, the best approach is to ask yourself: “What matters to me the most?”

Is it using the least amount of resources?

Consider buying vintage, resale, upcycled, or products that are created using little to no-waste patternmaking. In addition to Goodwill, many communities have resale or consignment stores where you can find gently-used clothes at bargain prices. High-quality vintage sellers can be found in online shops. Raleigh Vintage is a personal favorite and they ship all over the country. Upcycled goods are often tagged on social media too and sites like Etsy lend themselves to more one-of-kind pieces. Zass Design is doing fantastic things with upcycled jewelry pieces.

Or perhaps you strongly believe in supporting the organic movement and avoiding chemicals that pollute waterways?

Consider looking for organic fabrics and natural dyes. Gaia Conceptions uses organic fabrics and natural or low impact dyes. And Patagonia continues to innovate both in recycled and new eco-friendly textiles and materials.

Or maybe you want to purchase items from a more-established standard that is working toward making sure people are treated fairly and receive decent wages for their work?

Then Fair Trade is a good option. Indigenous and Synergy Clothing incorporate both fair trade practices and organic fabrics in their designs. Symbology also works with artisans in India to create most of their textile designs.

Or is it that you delight in getting to know individual designers and supporting the local community?

Consider looking for handcrafted, Made in the USA items. Companies like Lumina and Appalatch produce their goods solely in the U.S. Lisa Stewart handcrafts gorgeous leather accessories. Many cities host periodic marketplaces like The Handmade Market, The Big Crafty, or Northern Grade featuring exclusively handcrafted and/or American-made goods. Find one in your city.

Regardless of what you decide, keep in mind that the industry is continuously striving to be and do better, just like you. Another way you can help move the industry forward is to continue asking questions and seeking information on who makes your clothes and what they’re made from.  twitter-bird-light-bgs1

Currently, there is no one perfect eco-fashion line out there. However, we are fortunate that there is an amazing variety of eco-chic fashions available! This allows us each to dress with our values and our style in mind.

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” – Coco Chanel

Photos courtesy of Redress Raleigh and Shecky’s

4 Ways to Stand Out in a Sea of “Greenwashing”

This is a guest post by Beth Stewart, Strategic Director of Redress Raleigh.

About five months ago, this article lauded the “world’s most ethical clothing companies” and was immediately circulated all over the internet before such impressive claims could be properly researched. Most people reading the article would have no idea the ranking was largely based on corporate governance and compliance.

While H&M may be one of the largest users of organic cotton in the world, ethics requires you to look at who is making the clothing and consider all dimensions of the brand, namely the overall supply chain (including labor) and environmental responsibility.

While there are some consumers out there who do their own research, the majority do not — so this begs the question: How can you combat industry greenwashing and customer confusion? Below are three suggestions.

1.) Differentiate yourself.

Customers do not buy ‘eco-friendly’ clothing just because ‘it’s the right thing to do’. You need to stand out as a brand and make sure your customers understand what makes you different. Create hang-tags and marketing materials that reflect your values, your mission and true transparency. Create an incredible customer experience and interact with your most active admirers.Customers want to understand what a product stands for so that they can support those they feel connected to.

2.) Participate in the discussion.

For the most part, the mainstream media fails to investigate the perils of the fashion industry, writing very few exposés that get the consumers’ attention. Take the opportunity to converse with other like-minded companies through your social media channels and by talking to people in person. Participate in events highlighting the need for a socially-and-environmentally-responsible industry. And be an advocate for transparency and honesty. If you read something that you don’t agree with, ask questions and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. It’s the grassroots conversation that is the best chance for making change.

3.) Do not try to compare or compete with the fast fashion industry.

The fast fashion industry is not a sustainable business model, on many, many levels. Accept the fact that you cannot compete on price alone. Rather, find a way to distinguish yourself as a more desirable product – through quality, originality and creativity.

4.) Connect the dots and help to empower customers.

There is still a large disconnect in how the general public perceives the inner-workings of the fashion industry, especially in regards to what makes a business ‘eco’ or ‘ethical.’ Adding to the confusion is the rampant greenwashing and ‘light-green’ corporations that are clinging to the eco-fashion movement as just another trend they can capitalize on. Your job as a designer is to educate your customer through conversation: be transparent about the materials you use, the higher labor wages you pay, and how doing good business is an example to the industry overall.

In the end, there will still be shoppers who just don’t ‘get it.’ But it’s the long-term customer, who believes in what you’re creating, who will become a brand evangelist for you. It’s the customer who remembers your name and takes pride in wearing your designs. That customer is the right one.

Get involved with Redress here.

[Photo credit: Lux Salon Spa]