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Does H&M’s latest circular denim line make-up for past sustainability woes?

© ShutterstockH&M shop logo

One of the world’s largest fast fashion retailers H&M has announced the launch of a circular denim line amid scrutiny of the company’s sustainability claims.

Fast fashion giant H&M (OMXS30:HM-B.ST) launched a new men’s denim collection which it claims to be “circular”.

There has been recent scepticism about H&M’s sustainable products, and assessing the reliability of these claims is difficult due to a lack of measurement and reporting tools.

The fast fashion industry is one of the world’s worst climate offenders, and accelerating the sector to science-based targets will be key to reducing impacts.

Denim created by ‘circularity-driven innovation’

Customers in select H&M stores can now purchase denim which the fashion giant claims to be created by “circularity-driven innovation”. The company has launched a limited edition eight piece men’s denim collection which incorporates more sustainably sourced materials.

The new collection uses three main materials with an aim to increase the circularity of its productions. These materials include CIRCULOSE Viscose, a cellulose fibre create from discarded textiles like old jeans and wood, along with TENCEL Lyocell with REFIBRA technology, a cellulose fibre made in part by upcycled cotton scraps and part wood. These materials will be combined with denim and recycled cotton to make the company’s “circular denim”.

However, the company did not disclose the proportions of the more sustainable materials in the final product, nor where or how they source the recycled material.

H&M aims to design all their products for circularity by 2025 with the support of its tool Circulator, which is available for any brand and fashion designer to support design decisions with circularity considerations. This is a positive step that underscores the importance of collaboration in effectively addressing sustainability challenges in manufacturing.

While the launch of the new circular denim line may be a step in the right direction, the eight piece collection is just a drop in the bucket of H&M’s enormous product offering and the fashion group has been criticised before for greenwashing sustainability claims.

In July 2022, a class action lawsuit was filed in New York about its sustainability claims, around the lack of clarity in its ‘sustainability scorecards.’

Circularity key in H&M sustainability strategy

Closing the fashion loop is one of the key pillars of the H&M sustainability strategy, which focuses on creating circular products, circular supply chains, and circular customer journeys.

“We share the growing sense of urgency with many around the world who recognise the fashion industry needs to move faster towards circularity and continue to work to develop a fairer, more transparent and traceable supply chain”, said H&M Group’s head of sustainability Leyla Ertur.

The new denim collection is a step towards more circular products, which the company defines as “products that are made to last, from safe, recycled and sustainably sourced input”.

In 2021, the fashion company claims to have tripled the share of recycled materials used in their garments, increasing from 5.8% to 17.9% due mainly to the increased volumes of recycled cotton and polyester. The company is also looking to source more of their materials farmed with regenerative practices to limit impact on nature.

Reduction in plastic and recycling key elements of H&M’s circularity

Packaging design is also a major part of the company’s circularity, with the company claiming to have reduced plastic packaging by 27.8% in 2021.

The company aims to design 100% of its packaging to be reusable and/or recyclable and reduce the need for packaging across its value chain by 2025. However, in 2021 H&M’s packaging volume actually slightly increased, which the company attributes to a spike in online sales.

Another initiative of the company is offering their customers the opportunity to recycle their own old clothes in store. H&M gathered 15,944 tonnes of material through this program in 2021, a miniscule fraction of the 98 million tonnes of textile waste that the fashion industry produces each year.

While there may be small glimmers of hope for circular products and efforts in H&M, they are nowhere close to addressing the massive environmental impact that its operations have and the company acknowledges that they “are in the early stages of learning how to measure [their] impact and dependency on nature”.

Public pressure may be accelerating H&M’s shift to sustainability

Like many fast fashion brands, H&M has come under fire for its significant environmental impacts and a pervasive greenwashing trend.

A Quartz investigation published in June 2022 found that the environmental scorecards for its clothing that H&M published for its customers were misleading and often outright deceptive.

The scorecards were based on an industry-developed assessment tool known as the Higg Index, which compares the sustainability of clothing products of different brands. The index takes into account factors such as water and fossil fuel usage, as well as the environmental impact of the materials used in the product.

The main issue of this index is that it compares the sustainability of products relative to other similar products from other fast fashion retailers, which ultimately are not sustainable.

Clothes and water usage

The non-profit circular economy think tank the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that “every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill”, significantly impacting the climate and reducing resilience by disrupting biodiversity, degrading soil quality, and increasing air and water pollution.

Clothes waste is only one part of the problem. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that if the fashion industry does not change, the sector could take up to a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. UNEP also estimates that the fashion industry alone uses up enough water to meet the consumption of five million people.

Considering these factors are already skewing the results of what is sustainable on the comparative Higg Index, H&M was found to further tilt the scales in their favour by misrepresenting their scores.

For example, in some cases the Higg index scored a H&M product with a water-use score of -20% – indicating that it uses 20% more water than the average similar product. However, on H&M’s own scorecards, the product was listed as using 20% less water.

Since the scandal broke, H&M has removed these scorecards and the Higg index is undergoing a review. It is clear that there is a general lack of understanding and robust measurement and reporting tools to assess the true climate impact of fast fashion retailers, and an increase in transparency will be critical to better understand if fashion’s sustainability claims are the real deal, or another greenwashing marketing scheme.

Moving towards science-based targets and actions is critical

While the company does not deny the impact of its operations on nature, it has yet to develop global science-based climate and biodiversity goals and reporting frameworks, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for delay.

H&M has begun work with the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN), a multi stakeholder group engaging corporates with sustainability and building on the work of the Science Based Targets initiative. In collaboration with SBTN, H&M have started to map the full climate impact of their value chain and use these findings to set science-based targets to reduce their impact.

The lack of ambitious targets for one of the world’s largest companies in one of the world’s most polluting industries is certainly worrying, however, the move to set science-based targets is reassuring that H&M’s future sustainability efforts may have more of a meaningful impact.

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