It’s coming…tomorrow is the release date of the H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection. But should we, as conscious fashionistas, be excited about this collection that heralds the fast fashion giant’s notice of its ecological harm, or should we be wary of it as just another example of greenwashing? You know I just have to find out!
The Bad News
It’s been about a year since I committed to purchasing only conscious fashion: resale and brands with proven track records of impeccable ecological and sociological standards.
Before that commitment, I was largely a budget fashionista. And there was no better place to find wallet friendly and fashion forward pieces than H&M.
But I also remember how those pieces quickly fell apart. It was not lost on me that my fast fashion faves were rendered useless as quickly as they were produced. And as someone who not just loves clothes but cherishes every piece (seriously — my seven year old self did not want to give up her hot pink and white high tops even when they had massive holes in them), that fact was incredibly frustrating.
So it feels odd that the largest, most profitable fast fashion corporation in the world would even try to make claims to sustainability. Especially when that greenwashing (which is exactly what this is, make no bones about it) comes at such a high price.
As Lucy Siegle points out in her article, “Am I a fool to expect more than corporate greenwashing,” an article that has already received H&M backlash, part of H&M’s conscious efforts, a world recycling week, occurs during exactly the same week as Fashion Revolution Week.
Fashion Revolution Week began as a day to commemorate the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013. But unlike so many other gutless commemorative gestures, this one commands us to ask of fast fashion brands who made our clothes in an effort to highlight the horrendous labor conditions in garment manufacturing abroad.
And that’s exactly what H&M doesn’t want you to think about. Because even with all their lofty wording, even with the cold, boardroom, structured sustainability goals laid out on their website, even with the massive amounts of organic cotton that they purchase, one thing that will not change for H&M is their inexpensive supply chain, and the human suffering that makes it possible. The shareholders of H&M, who expect profits to continually rise each quarter, will not allow this to change.
So H&M distracts us with promises of recycling textiles. But as Siegle points out and as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, recycling textiles in an industry all its own that does not help with solutions to the problems of fast fashion. The end of life of our clothing is not where solutions can be found. The production side is where solutions can be found.
The Good(ish) News
I’ve heard it argued that if a retail giant like H&M makes any progress at all, we should applaud, encourage and support that progress. And we should purchase their Conscious line in droves in order to tell them, with our purchasing choices, that this is what we as consumers want. But honestly, as Michael Hobbes argues in his piece, “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper”, the problem is structural and systematic — and so must the solution be.
That’s not to say I would say that attempting to shop ethically is useless. I don’t believe it is. But the problems of fast fashion were not created by citizens, and so individuals and their shopping habits cannot be the only solution to them.
The solutions have to be structural. Since publicly traded corporations like H&M are structured to serve shareholders and profits over any other goal or good, solutions have to include governments that can regulate the ways in which businesses are legally allowed to function. What would such a legislation look like? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this fashionista’s experience and knowledge.
But I have the faintest inklings that since the problems of fast fashion and its most direst consequences wrap themselves around the entire world, from the cruddy quality clothing foisted onto the public in the developed world to the labor abuses in the developing, to the vast environmental consequences that affect the health of the entire world: it has to be a legal device that also spans the entire globe.
So for now, will I shop the Conscious Exclusive Collection and recommend that you do as well? That depends on your situation. One the one hand, like Livia Firth, I want to tell H&M off for not doing better:
I think H&M can only really claim to be doing good in the world if they reclassified themselves to refrain from being a publicly traded company, and thus could focus on restructuring (not in the business jargon sense of that word that means firing people) their supply chain to be transparent and locally produced.
That way, they would not be beholden to shareholders but could become more like a Reformation or an Everlane in their operations. Until they commit to these changes, I want to recommend to you to refrain from buying H&M pieces. I want to commit to boycotting H&M’s current retail model.
But I know that the situation is never that simple and clear cut. In the United States and Britain, there are plenty of conscious alternatives. Reformation, Zady, Everlane, People Tree and Braintree just to name a few. There are countless other brands dotting the US, Europe and Australia. For those of us in the rest of the world who have to suffer import taxes and exchange rates to buy these amazing brands, the pickings are a little more slim.
If you can afford to purchase from conscious brands based abroad, by all means — do so. I would never want to discourage you from choosing sustainable choices if it’s a possibility for you.
But if you can’t afford it, the situation becomes difficult. In Canada, we could choose from Canadian brands. But then we get into the sticky situation of paying way too much money for a pair of cheap, transparent yoga pants that apparently weren’t designed for us (sarcasm).
We could choose to purchase a garment that was made in Canada, and then suffer the pangs of conscience from all the geese and coyotes that went into producing our winter coats. Or there’s always the accessible American Apparel if your budget allows, but that comes with its own set of ethical issues.
Really, the best bet in this country is to buy from a producer that is local for you, to buy off a Canadian Etsy site, or to buy resale or rent! And if you can do choose any of these options, definitely do so! But I understand that each of these can have its own particular pitfalls.
In many parts of Canada, H&M is one of the most accessible brands available. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We who care about the state of the fashion industry can try with all our might to vote with our dollars, but in many ways having H&M locations in every big mall across the country means that the choice has already been made for us.
So on the other hand, I want to advise you that if you are going to give hard earned money to H&M, spend it on their conscious pieces. The Exclusive Collection aside, there is a segment of the store that is devoted to conscious pieces. Maybe this year, instead of lining up for the latest H&M designer collaboration, we can line up for the Conscious collection instead.
And whatever choice we make, let’s not allow H&M’s greenwashing efforts overshadow Fashion Revolution Week. Let’s keep asking all fast and high fashion brands complicit in environmental and social justice abuses, “Who made my clothes?”
What do you think of the H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection, and of their Conscious endeavours in general? Will you shop the collection or avoid H&M out of principle? I’d love to know, so tell me all about it in the comments!