Reviewed: How ethical and sustainable is H&M Home?

Image credit: H&M Home

Image credit: H&M Home

H&M Home

Ethical Home Edit Rating:

Sustainability: ✮✮✮✩✩

Social empowerment: ✮✮✮✩✩

Animal rights: ✮✮✮✩✩

Price: $ - $$

Ships to: Worldwide

The homewares arm of gargantuan fast-fashion brand H&M is a slightly newer offering, teasing us with trend-driven homewares with a luxe-looking, contemporary edge, at extremely affordable prices.

While H&M’s approach to sustainability in terms of its clothing is reasonably well-known (and not without significant controversy), its approach to the sustainability of its homewares products is less clear…

It is apparent when you read through H&M’s sustainability strategy and report that it is weighted very heavily towards clothing. That makes sense of course - H&M is after all primarily a fashion brand - but it would be helpful for H&M to clarify the extent to which the strategy applies to its homewares too.

I asked H&M about this directly and got the following response “Our H&M Home brand is a new and developing concept of the H&M group. We will strive to operate in a sustainable way. Information for this concept is yet to be made formally available.”

I did follow up with a few emails to H&M’s Head of Sustainability, Anna Gedda (as suggested by the Customer Service team), but I failed to elicit any response. Read into that what you will.

In fairness, the 2018 report looks clearer to me that H&M Home is considered a key part of the overall approach, so I’ve reviewed in good faith on the basis that all claims relates equally to each of H&M’s brands.

Here’s my take on how H&M Home fares:

Image credit: H&M Home

Image credit: H&M Home

H&M HOME’S APPROACH TO SUSTAINABILITY

H&M is BIG. With over 4968 stores across 71 markets, 2383 supplier factories and over 800 million transactions a year, H&M’s approach to sustainability matters. A lot.

H&M’s overarching approach to sustainability is built on three key foundations:

  • 100% circular and renewable;

  • 100% fair and equal; and

  • 100% leading the change.

And their sustainability report is comprehensive. I mean, wow, it is a tome at 109 pages long!

As all good sustainability strategies do, H&M links to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is great. It is also chock full of aspirational targets and goals.

One of the big achievements for H&M is its approach to increased consumer-focused transparency, particular in respect of its supply chains. While the New Zealand website is currently lacking, a quick potter on the UK site shows me information on the factory each item is produced in (as well as information on the number of workers employed there). There is also information on the material used in the product (though I confess to finding this less than informative when it comes to cotton – more on that later).

H&M’s approach to textile recycling is also good news – though I had to ask whether home textiles were also included in their scheme. They are, but I doubt many of us would think to bring in old cushion covers or pillowcases to our local H&M store. I’d like to see some explicit in-store messaging on this – or at last a similar drop-off collection in the H&M Home areas of stores. Otherwise it all feels too geared towards clothing .

H&M continues to make progress on reducing its own carbon emissions which is positive, and it has developed a packaging roadmap which states its intent:.

  • that all packaging should be designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025;

  • that it will use 10 percent recycled and other sustainably sourced materials by year 2030; and

  • that it will reuse or recycle 100 percent of packaging waste from its own sites by 2025.

The percentage of recycled or ‘other sustainable’ fabrics that H&M uses in its products is also increasing year on year, which, while clearly a good thing, does not address the underlying issues of mass consumption underpinning fast fashion and homewares. These products, as they are sold so cheaply (making them seen as ‘throwaway’ after weeks or months) still risk ending up rotting in landfill.

Underwhelming on cotton

I got a bit baffled with all of the different text on cotton on H&M’s site. Their goal is to ‘use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030’. By sustainably sourced, they mean organic, or Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton. That’s great, but it isn’t clear when you click on a specific product how much of the cotton used in it is sustainably sourced, recycled or otherwise - some, none? Who knows?

When it comes to the ‘conscious collection’, H&M states that products contain at least 50 percent recycled, organic or tencel/lyocell material, with some products containing 100 percent. In any product the maximum share of recycled cotton is 20 percent.

Argh! It’s all a bit of a jumble. And when you click on a product, it’s impossible to know what the proportions in it actually are - are you getting a 100 percent recycled/organic item or a 50 percent one? This makes it near impossible to tell just how conscious the conscious item you’re buying really is. Sigh.

A bit woolly on wood

H&M says that it is increasing its use of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified materials to avoid using wood (or products derived from wood) that is sourced irresponsibly or has negative environmental impacts. It doesn’t say how much of the wood used as of today is from FSC certified forests though so it really isn’t clear how sustainable H&M’s current wood products are.


Some of the conscious range ain’t half bad

I clicked through to the details on several of the rattan furniture products listed in the conscious collection and then looked up the factory they made in, based in East Java, Indonesia. Now, as well as know, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the factory itself told a strong story on its own approach to sustainability, certification for the raw materials it was using and on workers’ rights. So, at least some of the products in H&M’s conscious home range do have a lighter footprint.

I’ve given H&M Home a three star (AVERAGE) rating on sustainability. Like Ikea, H&M is working diligently on moving towards a circular business model in the longer-term, which is extremely encouraging. However, unlike Ikea, H&M’s approach is far more focused on just textiles and clothing, which leaves me wondering how much further their homewares products may be behind when it comes to circular design principles.

I also struggle with reconciling H&M’s trend-driven, seasonal, approach to their products with sustainability principles. I genuinely don’t see how they can ever align.

How ethical and sustainable is H&M Home - greenwashing, eco home, sustainable interiors

H&M HOME’S APPROACH TO SOCIAL EMPOWERMENT

H&M’s stated approach to fairness, inclusion and diversity, and workers’ rights looks, on the face of it, to be extremely comprehensive. There is a significant focus throughout the sustainability report on collective bargaining and worker representation. And given that H&M’s supply chain directly contributes to over 1.6 million jobs, their approach matters.

H&M updated its approach to social sustainability in 2013 to include a greater focus on capacity building, collaboration and structural change at factory, industry and country level. However, because of its sheer size, ensuring that H&M’s aspirations match up with the realities of the workers on the ground remains a significant ongoing challenge.

As recently as September 2018, H&M were called out for failing to live up to its own promise to pay 850,000 of its workers a living wage by 2018. A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) found that workers in H&M supplier factories in Cambodia earned less than half the estimated living wage, dropping to about a third for those living in India and Turkey.

It found that many worked overtime hours that exceeded the legal limit without being properly paid, while others were only paid the minimum wage if they worked extra hours and met their quota, which, according to the CCC, the United Nations defines as forced labour. The result of this failing: excessive hours being worked for those employees to be able to support their families, all in the name of rock-bottom prices for us.

Other reports from 2018 highlight gender-based violence and sexual abuse in some of the garment factories used by H&M (and other major fast-fashion brands). This feels very far removed from the smiling faces littered throughout H&M’s sustainability report which suggests that there is significantly more to be done.

 Now, having said all this, with a brand this size, there are always going to be issues of non-compliance and poor standards across the supply chain, and for every bad egg, there will be exemplar factories that treat its workers fairly. But my question is whether this cost is worth it.

Size seems to be a bit of an excuse for many of H&M’S failings – it’s difficult to keep track of so many factories in so many countries with differing approaches to employment rights and wages. It’s difficult to only use organic cotton because it has lower yields than conventional cotton…and so on. At what point do we decide that production at this size and scale is JUST. NOT. SUSTAINABLE?

 I’ve given H&M a three-star (AVERAGE) rating for its approach to social empowerment. The foundations and good intentions are all there, and I truly believe that H&M is trying to ‘lead the change’ and to be better. However, it is clear that the realities for many workers on the ground do not match up to H&M’s aspirations, resulting in overwork, underpayment and a poorer standard of living, all in the name of cheap clothing or cushion covers. This situation, at a time where for many of us disposable income has never been higher, doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Image credit: H&M Home

Image credit: H&M Home

H&M HOME’S APPROACH TO ANIMAL RIGHTS

Things look up when we look at H&M’s approach to animal rights and welfare - they’re definitely on the right path here by refusing to use fur or exotic animal skins in any of its products. But what about more traditional materials?

Wool: H&M’s goal is that, by 2022, it will only source virgin wool from farms certified to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). It doesn’t say how much of the wool currently used is RWS certified, though there don’t seem to be many wool products in H&M’s homewares collections at present. While there is further to go in clarifying where existing wool is sourced from, H&M is on the way to phasing out mohair (by 2020) and cashmere (by 2030) due to concerns raised by PETA in respect of animal welfare. So credit for that. 

Leather: H&M is working with the Responsible Leather Roundtable (driven by the Textile Exchange, the Leather Working Group and its sub-group on animal welfare) to increase standards when it comes to animal welfare. It states that by 2025, all H&M’s animal-based leather will be chrome-free and will originate from more sustainable sources. I don’t know what the more sustainable sources are, however…

Perhaps more promisingly, H&M is investing considerable effort into non-animal leather alternatives using plants and other materials. 

Feathers: H&M has a great story to tell when it comes to feathers - all the virgin down it uses comes from farms certified to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). In 2018, H&M also introduced recycled down and feathers into its products, collected from post-consumer goods. Great job! 

I’ve given H&M a three star (AVERAGE) rating on its approach to animal rights as there remains more to do - and again the size of H&M’s operations makes it difficult to keep standards in check. I imagine this rating will improve once H&M reaches the targets it has set itself over the next few years.

CONCLUSION

I have some sympathy with H&M’s founding ethos which applies just as much to its homewares as it does its fashion – and that is seeking to democratise by making its products affordable to most people. That is a lofty aim for sure, but I remain sceptical that the fast-fashion (or fast-homewares) model of trend-driven, mass production is genuinely achieving this.

Sure, you can spend less money on an item (or five) now, but if you’re going to simply buy a further five in three months time when the latest trend launches (and again and again), you’re probably ending up spending just as much as you would have spent investing in one or two quality pieces that you’ll cherish forever. Without the crappy environmental impact and poor working conditions…just sayin’.

I really wanted to hate H&M and had expected to write a scathing review on the extent of their greenwashing. I’m almost disappointed by what I’ve found!

I’ve given H&M an overall score of 3 stars (AVERAGE) because I cannot get past the negative social and environmental impacts caused by their size, scale and product turnaround. However, their efforts to increase consumer-focused transparency by including information about each product and where it was made has to be applauded. It’s still far from truly transparent but it does provide a good start that I hope other brands will emulate - smaller brands in particular should have no problem in providing this information to their customers.

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How ethical and sustainable is H&M Home? greenwashing, eco home, sustainable interiors