International clothing giant H&M launched their Conscious Collection this week although one does have to ask the question: is this just a retail marketing exercise that ticks all the right Corporate Social Responsibility boxes, or is H&M taking a genuine step forward toward a more sustainable business model?
I visited one of their London stores yesterday and was immersed in an aggressive visual merchandising campaign for the Conscious Collection. The window display, the front of the shop and signage in the store all shouted about the values of sustainable fashion. The staff wore t-shirts from the collection exclaiming ‘green’ this and ‘green’ that. There was even a recycling dropbox for last season’s cast-offs. It felt like a clinical, corporate take on the Occupy movement zeitgist.
There is a big spend here, which is not surprising because if H&M is desperate to shake off its disposable fashion image, it is probably worth every krona for them to invest in an image makeover. It certainly needs one: In 2010, The New York Times reported H&M slashed superfluous products in Manhattan’s back streets and a year later, a Greenpeace report linked H&M to toxic manufacturing processes polluting China’s rivers on a massive scale.
The latter terra faux pas was dealt with swiftly and sexily. H&M partnered up with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and hammered out a strategy for water stewardship. The issue of garment slashing was resolved with in-store recycling depots.
So how genuine is this latest step?
When the collection first launched in summer 2012, the clothes were nearly impossible to find. The London flagship store in Oxford Street didn’t stock it. At the Regent Street store, my requests were initially met with blank stares, but after much asking around, one member of staff with a good memory showed me to a rail tucked away in the basement. There was nothing to write home about, they were dowdy, shapeless entities desperate to be passed off as a tulip skirt. To an extent, this season’s collection addresses the lack of design integrity of the clothes.
Clearly something has changed. The company has made a big effort to bring what must have been an underperforming product line, to the fore. H&M has taken a risk with this collection, and stylistically it has worked.
For me, the strongest piece in the collection is the sateen print trousers and matching sheer top. The design is bold and bright, boasting a digital printed collage of tropical flora and fauna. It nods to fashion’s current love affair with Mary Karantzou and Prabal Gurung. The top is made of recycled polyester. The trousers are lined with organic cotton but the print side of the trousers are polyester suggesting that at best, only about 60% of the most design-led product in the collection is sustainable, but not necessarily ethical. There is nothing to suggest the cotton is fairly traded or if, for that matter, the garment workers are paid a living wage. And this brings us back to the question of really, how socially responsible this collection really is. The answer, sadly, is that we don’t know; the labelling simply doesn’t tell us the whole story.
H&M should be applauded for taking CSR initiatives seriously and righting the wrongs of their past practices: the water stewardship initiative, the recycling, use of organic cotton, garment workers education, all of which are detailed on its CSR page. But what I’d love to see is better supply-chain transparency at the point of sale.
Until then, I won’t be buying into large marketing campaigns like this, but instead will continue to seek out independent sustainable fashion labels that already do all the things H&M is desperate to catch up with.