The Fashion industry frequently attempts to make statements about complex social or environmental issues. Many of these campaigns are hailed as important for starting conversations, acknowledging problems, and raising awareness. Still, they beg the question about the concrete action that actually accompany such performances. In recent years, H&M have been hailed as being at the forefront of sustainability in the fast- fashion and high-street world. Recently, they launched H&M Conscious, a clothing line that focuses on responsible clothing production. But, I'd argue that their marketing tactics are a prime example of the prominent greenwashing that plagues this industry.
What is Greenwashing? Greenwashing is described as deliberately misleading consumers about their environmental performance or the environmental benefits of their products. In other words, making selective environmental claims to look good, without necessarily following with the necessary actions to back up such statements. The emergence of greenwashing particularly in the last decade comes to no surprise, as there is a growing emphasis on the environmental responsibility that fashion brands have. Thus, more and more brands are trying to appeal to a portion of consumers that want to consume sustainable or responsible product—they are exploiting an opportunity within a market. This is why we see its commodification, as well as key words like ‘sustainability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘consciousness’ becoming trendy, marketable vocabulary.
How is H&M Conscious misleading consumers? The short answer is many ways.
But, the first aspect of H&M Conscious that should be mentioned is the language used for the campaign. As I previously mentioned, words like ‘sustainability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘consciousness’ are all key terms prominent within greenwashing practices. Using vague terms that are not easily validated is a tactic often used to derive attention from the real problems at hand. So, we are left to question what exactly they mean by saying their line is 'sustainable' or 'responsible', because let's be real, these terms are so overused nowadays that no one really knows what they actually mean.
Alongside this, it is worth pointing out H&M’s general insistence on consumer collaboration in their efforts in transitioning into a sustainable brand. In their ‘sustainability’ tab on the H&M official website, “let’s” is used on nine occasions. Here, the language is implying a collaboration between consumer and brand to achieve some sustainable goals. Thus, H&M is implying that they that they require consumption in order to become more environmentally-oriented as a brand. The issue with this here, is that it misleads H&M buyers into believing that by purchasing more clothing, they are encouraging an environmental initiative.
Another aspect that should be examined is the imagery used for this particular campaign. H&M Conscious continues to greenwash through the curation of images they associate with their product. Amidst the images of models wearing their clothing, there are imbedded photos of plants, fruits, and other greenery clearly included to bolster their environmental narrative. These photos are unrelated to the garments themselves, and don’t have any particular relationship with the production process itself. Thus, they are placed for the sake of adding subconscious visual stimulus to the consumer looking for natural, organic, and environmental signs as they shop for
In this sense, H&M is exploiting our learnings and notions of natural imagery to present their clothing in associations with our feelings for nature's signs. Using images of plants, fruits, and nature plays into discourse of nature, and the organic, and attempts to associate such notions with H&M’s clothing. The issue is that this is purely an illusion, considering H&M does not use leaves, or grapes, or flowers to produce a pair of pants, they are merely using such symbolism to reinforce their ideals of sustainability. In doing so, they are potentially diverting attention away from their destructive fast-fashion behaviours, and appeasing their consumers as they encourage them to buy more clothes.
Now, the final aspect that should be mentioned is with regards to the H&M Group, which is the overarching company that is responsible for a handful of high-street retailers like COS, Weekday, and of course, H&M itself. On the H&M group’s website, they have released an annual ‘Sustainability and Performance Report’ detailing their efforts made towards transitioning into a progressively environmentally conscious set of brands since 2002. In heir 2020 report, a letter from the CEO outlines their desire to continue their transition into “circular fashion”, and generally offers a look into the groups self-evaluation on their choice of materials, methods of production, and the intentions they set themselves to improve in the long- term future. It is said to be mainly used for transparency, allowing the company to provide important information for those that choose to read it.
In their 2020 report, although some of the information provided is valuable, there is a problematic competitive undertone. There is frequent mention of innovation, that the group is “the world’s first” or that they are “leading the change”, plus a number of award mentions meant to give them credibility in the eyes of the industry. Whilst this is understandable, there is an uncomfortable competitive mindset at play here, that puts into question the motivations behind this sustainable initiative. The narrative that H&M and their group are leading the fast-fashion industry’s sustainable movement plays into the performative nature of their campaign, and reinforces the previous claims that this is more about capital gain, than it is about the cause they are claim to be championing.
Can H&M truly become sustainable? I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the efforts being made by H&M. I understand that, within the fast-fashion space, someone has to make changes regarding the standards of garment production. To be fair, I see the efforts that H&M are making, and although I personally would not support the brand for many reasons, can appreciate some of their efforts towards becoming environmentally-friendly. My issue here really is with the misleading marketing, and spread of misinformation through their cute presentation.
So, I'd like to leave you with a final consideration. If H&M mass-produces a collection made from recycled materials, does the sheer volume and rate of production counter the initiative of using deemed sustainable practices in the first place? How can H&M possibly be a sustainable fashion brand if the majority of their production methods remain unchanged? Regardless of what materials they use, or technologies they incorporate to produce them, this does not change the fundamental, systematic issue of the company’s operations as a fast-fashion giant. H&M remains a dominant entity within the fast-fashion space, and benefits from and perpetuates ongoing wasteful, destructive, and exploitative clothing production to provide our tremendous market of fast-fashion consumers.
Although there is some minor progress being made in terms of transparency and subtle innovation, I'd say that the overall misleading nature of their campaign largely harms the discourse of a sustainable fashion industry and discourages the necessary transformative changes required to truly begin altering fashion's fundamental environmental flaws.