Saturday, 2 February 2013

H&M Conscious Collection: Is it really ethical?

I remember when I first heard about H&M's Conscious Collection a couple of years back when it was just a fledgling line testing the waters. I specifically remember trying to decide whether or not I approved. It just reminded me of seeing the Fair Trade label starting to appear on Cadbury and Nestle chocolate bars- it just didn't feel right. Then I saw the Fair Trade label appearing on white tank tops in Tesco and that felt even less right. I suppose it's a trust issue- I just couldn't seem to equate a multinational corporation with the local values that ethical and Fair Trade fashion represent.

Before Christmas we saw whole hosts of activists 'fainting' outside H&M stores in a campaign to draw attention to the poor working conditions of labourers used in H&M's supply chain.

 "Last year, over 2400 workers passed out in Cambodian factories due to malnutrition as a direct consequence of low salaries. But H&M, one of Cambodia's main buyers, continues to refuse to pay a living wage to its workers,” 

says Jeroen Merk of the International Clean Clothes Campaign. H&M claim that as they do not own the workshops that create their clothes (they only place orders with them) they have no responsibility for them. If we look at H&M's website and sustainability report, they claim to be not only environmentally but socially ethical.

According to 'Labour Behind the Label', H&M "Accepts the principle of a living wage, but applies legal minimum/industry benchmark". They grade H&M level 1 on a scale of 0-5 measuring how well a company is doing in the task of aliviating poverty wages in its supply chain. To see Labour Behind the Labels's company profile for H&M and more detail on why they were awarded their grade, click here. The grading was given after a survey completed in the summer of 2011; so have H&M improved since then? A documentary was released in Sweden  explaining how H&M is not tackling social ethics in their supply chain in October 2012. To view the documentary, click here.

The documentary includes interview clips with H&M's CEO as well as their Head of Sustainability. These clips make for very interesting viewing as they highlight how uncomfortable these questions on the living wage make the high profile employees. According to the documentary, labour costs account for only 1-3% of a garments price so I struggle to understand why the living wage is not at the forefront of H&M's vision of sustainable fashion. 

Maybe it's that H&M is just focusing on environmental issues? The Ethical Consumer has awarded H&M's Organic collection 7.5/20 and H&M's regular line 6.5/20 using categories of research including Animals, Environment, People, Politics and Sustainability. So when focusing on ethics as a wider issue than just living wages, H&M scores much higher, though clearly still not anywhere near 'ethical' fashion levels. 

This tally's up with my thoughts on H&M's Conscious Collection- the line boasts of its organic cotton, tencel and recycled polyester which really focus's on H&M's commitment to environmentally ethical fashion. The launch of the collection will coincide with H&M's Conscious garment collection initiative which allows customers to bring in bags of unwanted clothing to be swapped for H&M vouchers. These unwanted garments will then be recycled. This initiative brings recycling to the forefront of the consumers mind- it encourages us all to think about recycling and our environmental impact a bit more when we shop.

It's this exposure to ethical awareness which really makes me want to find the good in H&M. Their Conscious Collection may not be 100% socially or environmentally ethical just yet, maybe not even 50%, but at least they are putting something out there. The bulk of fashionistas that walk in and out of H&M probably won't even be aware that there is such a thing as ethical fashion, because lets face it, it is still a niche, growing market. The fact that when they walk in mid-March to see this 'ethical' line has launched, it might make them question the ethical values of the rest of H&M's collection. It might encourage them to start to think about where their clothes come from.

And for those of us who are more aware of the impact of the garment industry, even though we can see that H&M isn't a forerunner in ethical fashion, if we buy their Conscious Collection, high sales and a larger demand might encourage the company to think about expanding the Conscious Collection values to the rest of their lines. Also, previews of this years collection are pretty darn fabulous so right now I think I'm leaning towards the pro-Conscious Collection team...but it's so tricky I'm just not sure. It's not expected to launch until March 25th so we have time to make up our minds. Clearly the H&M debate does not have a definitive answer, and there's so much more information on the subject out there, so I would really love to know what you all think and where you all stand. Comment below to let me know!  : )

Links and articles related to the Conscious Collection:

Lucy Siegle 'Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion?' April 2012

Sarah Karmali 'Vanessa Paradis Named Face Of H&M Conscious Collection' January 2013

Labour Behind the Label- Articles with 'H&M' tag

H&M- About- Sustainabilty

Cold Facts Documentary about H&M

H&M under fire as Swedish television unearths Cambodian production scandal

H&M: Workers left homeless and unpaid after factory closes


  1. Great blog! You bring up some really valid points - change has to start somewhere. Imagine if companies like H&M waited until they could be perfect before they tried to affect change? We might be waiting forever... Instead, they're taking steps towards more ethical and fair fashion (progress, rather than perfection). As citizens and consumers, we can continue to push for change, raise awareness and vote with our ballots and wallets.

  2. This is a really great post. I had similar concerns with the H&M Conscious Collection, but at the same time it's really good to see a massive corporation like them making movements in the right direction. One of my main issues with H&M is how much they push the "fast fashion" movement forwards. Their prices are great for students, but they are so low that they encourage a very high wardrobe turnover. This is unfortunately also the downside of their secondhand clothes for vouchers scheme: it once again encourages increased consumption of new products.
    But, as Angela says above, change has to start somewhere... but sometimes I wonder if half-hearted efforts are almost counter-productive, making consumers feel less guilty about their purchases, without any understanding of the real issues at stake.
    (bit of an essay there...)

  3. Great post! Nothing about buying a t-shirt for £3.99 (as H+M sell them for) is sustainable, or ethical but unlike other massive international retailers they have picked up the ethical thing and run with it for a couple of years now. As a marketing exercise the Conscious Collection should be applauded, they've taken ethical fashion to the high street shopper who wouldn't perhaps go looking for it. When the collection launched they gave it a whole window. So I think its good that they are doing something, but I agree with Fiona that my main problem with H+M is driving a fast fashion industry with unrealistic low prices. Thats one of the biggest battles, retailers want to keep selling to us, but we all have enough clothes!

  4. A really interesting post and something I can't seem to make my mind up on. Is it best to support the pioneering green brands that have sustainability at their core or the bigger brands that are making a bit of an effort. If nobody buys these ranges by retailers like H & M, then I guess that they will stop selling them and the potential to educate and spread the word about sustainable fashion to the mainstream is lost. If we support them then perhaps they will get the message and make more sustainable fashion. The big problem for me though, is that whilst these collections may be made from eco friendly fabrics, they don't really move away from the concept of fast fashion, they are not great quality and the clothes aren't really made to last.

  5. The thing is - look back over 10 or 15 years of clothing production. It used to all be manufactured here in Europe; most often in the country to which a brand belonged. Back THEN, companies HAD to take responsibility for their workers... It was the law - and factory workers' rights had been hard won all through the 19th and 20th Centuries. Simply saying they 'don't own' the factories overseas while they are happy to scoop MASSIVE profits at the expense of these workers is not an answer. The fact is, these skilled workers ARE making their clothes, just as the skilled workers in our countries were until trade was rationalised. Why should these people be treated differently? Why should they face poverty, malnutrition, health & safety disasters and no right to unionise?? Brands need to face up to the fact that they are simply shirking a responsibility that was once an intrinsic part of their day-to-day remit.

  6. H&M rhetoric of CSR and ethics is a dubious claim. Indeed, changing the focus of CSR and ethics affects how we perceive this change of H&M becoming more conscious. However, it only really makes a difference when consumer purchase from the conscious collection. What will happen to the worker of Sweatshops if consumer decide to become more conscious. There are many perspectives to consider.

  7. Fast Mode + Ethics. Can clothes be cheap and ethical correct at the same time? Maybe when you are original, authentic, creative, unique, when you make them yourself!? But H&M? I strongly advice to doubt and go for the alternative. Better for you and all of us.

    Think about.. H&M?? Read the article to be informed. You are what you wear. A sheep?

  8. Hi fellas,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article really!
    If someone want to read more about that Ethical trading I think this is the right place for you!