Is H&M Fast Fashion? Image by Kishor #isH&Msustainable #isH&Methical #H&Msustainability #isH&Mfastfashion #H&Methicalissues #sustainablejungle
Image by Kishor

Is H&M Fast Fashion?

Aarron Lopex


If you’ve ever stepped foot in a shopping mall, you’ve likely encountered H&M.

The brand is well-known for trendy garments, affordable prices, and an ever-changing catalog, attracting shoppers with easy-to-find pieces that are stylish and professional-looking within budget.

But anytime a brand offers thousands of constantly changing items often at prices lower than a Starbucks Venti Frappuccino—particularly one that has dumped over $100 million into sustainability (marketing?) efforts—we have to ask: Is H&M a fast fashion brand?

Uncovering Why H&M Is Fast Fashion

Is H&M Fast Fashion? Image by Ramneek Singh #isH&Msustainable #isH&Methical #H&Msustainability #isH&Mfastfashion #H&Methicalissues #sustainablejungle
Image by Ramneek Singh

H&M, or H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB, is one of the largest multinational clothing companies in the world.

The brand is based in Sweden and focuses on fast-moving, trending garments for men, women, and children—most recently joined by their own line of homewares and beauty products.The store got its start in 1947 by Erling Persson when he created the first boutique under the name Hennes in Västerås, Sweden.

Over 70 years later, H&M operates in 75 different geographical markets with over 4,500 stores and 100,000 employees. Per their latest earnings report, the company raked in a massive $22.6 billion in revenue in 2023 with a gross profit increase of 7% from the previous year.

At the time of this writing, their website boasted a whopping 7,636 separate (and frequently changing) items across the following categories: women, men, baby, kids, home, and beauty.

And all these consumption promoting category menus are boldly placed right next to a big “Sustainability” tab right on the header of their website.

Given the former facts, it’s hard to trust absolutely anything one might find in there, but we dove into it regardless to answer one very important question: is H&M sustainable? Or is their sustainability just another way the brand is chasing trends?


H&M Controversies

Is H&M Fast Fashion? Image by Fernand De Canne #isH&Msustainable #isH&Methical #H&Msustainability #isH&Mfastfashion #H&Methicalissues #sustainablejungle
Image by Fernand De Canne

Let’s begin by considering some of the brand’s controversies and blackspots over the years. 

Greenwashing Claims

H&M was accused of greenwashing through the environmental assertions of its Conscious Choice collection, which resulted in a class action lawsuit that ultimately went nowhere before the accusations were eventually dismissed.

Earlier, The Norwegian Consumer Agency (Forbrukertilsynet) expressed its belief that Norrøna was violating regulations by advertising its clothing as eco-friendly. Consequently, a caution was issued to the H&M GROUP, advising against the adoption of similar environmental claims in their marketing strategies.

Cutting Up Deadstock Clothing

On January 6th, 2010, reports of unsold or refunded clothing from a New York City location were damaged before being discarded. The individual claims to have found roughly 20 trash bags filled with slashed, cut, and torn garments.

By the way, the processing of “damaging out” excess stock—instead of selling it at discounted prices, or, better yet, donating it to those in need—is a hallmark of some of fast fashion’s most egregious offenders, like Urban Outfitters.

This manufacturing conveyor belt to the landfill has been called by some an “Everest of a problem” due to the textile waste it produces—not to mention all those wasted emissions, materials, and resources that went into manufacturing those garments in the first place.

Suspending Workers

In July 2019, reports came out that H&M docked the pay and suspended multiple unionized staff members in three of its locations in New Zealand. Staff members were brandishing ‘living wage’ badges and stickers as part of a more significant industrial issue. 

Controversial Apparel

In 2018, the brand showcased a black child wearing a green hoodie with the phrase “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” on their official United Kingdom platform. 

This sparked outrage amongst fans, shoppers, and commentators and resulted in one of the most widespread controversies for the brand to date. Much of the outrage came from the United States (then in the middle of rising advocacy for racial justice), as many thought the term “monkey” was a derogatory nod to the race of the child model.

Some of H&M’s ambassadors, like The Weeknd and G-Eazy, stepped away from the company, boycotting the brand and ending their partnerships.

H&M issued an apology and removed all of the content from their official platforms.

More Racism Accusations

H&M has also faced backlash for racism in the past.

In November 2015, the South African H&M division was accused of racism for its lack of representation in its photoshoots. The team actually stated that white models convey a more “positive image.”

In December 2020, Sweden’s Equality Ombudsman (DO) opened an investigation into the brand following a media report accusing it of racism in Swedish boutiques. This investigation was opened after reports of camera footage depicting a woman with a foreign background being denied an exchange without a receipt.


H&M Ethical Issues Are Still Problematic, But Improving

Is H&M Fast Fashion? Image by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu #isH&Msustainable #isH&Methical #H&Msustainability #isH&Mfastfashion #H&Methicalissues #sustainablejungle
Image by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu

Like many other large-scale fashion retailers, H&M ethics have historically been dodgy at best. 

Many iconic brands, like Levi’s, have had issues due to their extensive history of operating through multiple periods, but do appear to be making real effort toward positive change. Can the same be said for H&M?

H&M Working Conditions

China, Bangladesh, and India are H&M’s top three manufacturing locations. They don’t own any of the factories and work with independent manufacturers. H&M works with over 574 commercial product suppliers, with the European Union being the largest market for its beauty products. 

40% of H&M’s tier-one factories are represented by a trade union. You can find out more information on H&M’s supply chain here

H&M’s labor practices came under fire in 2011 when 300 workers from a Cambodian factory that produced goods for H&M came forward with claims about frequent fainting incidents. Various factors, including chemical emissions, inadequate air circulation, undernutrition, and collective panic, were cited as causes of the sickness. 

But working conditions weren’t the only thing at fault. Many employees decried poor living conditions as a result of their extremely low wages to be a contributing factor, too. Human rights organizations point out that the country’s minimum monthly wage of $66 falls significantly short of covering the bare essentials, being less than half of the necessary amount.

Just two years later, an H&M textile factory in Cambodia collapsed, injuring multiple individuals.

H&M was also one of many brands—alongside Free People— manufacturing clothing in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh at the time of its collapse, resulting in the death of more than 1,100 individuals and injury or disablement of over 2,000 others. Following this disaster, the company endorsed the Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh to enhance worker safety standards. 

In June 2016, the advocacy group SumOfUs initiated a campaign urging H&M to fulfill its pledge to safeguard the workers in Bangladesh’s garment sector. SumOfUs criticized H&M for significantly lagging in rectifying the safety risks that their employees encounter daily.

Slave & Child Labor

In 2013, The Ecologist covered Anti-Slavery International’s claims that H&M was still engaging with the Uzbek government to use both child and adult labor for cotton picking in Uzbekistan.

In the wake of global concerns about the exploitation of Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang by September 2020, H&M issued a statement declaring its cessation of cotton purchases from Xinjiang producers. This decision came after the company expressed serious worries regarding allegations by non-governmental organizations and the press about forced labor and the mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

In 2017, it was uncovered that children were being used in Myanmar to produce garments for H&M, receiving a wage of approximately 15 cents per hour, which is merely half the (already too low) legal minimum wage.

With all this evidence, it difficult to believe the brand’s claims such as:

“Since 1997, we have been working systematically to address the risk of forced labour and child labour in our global supply chain.”

Wages & Traceability

Following these incidents, H&M joined the Fair Labour Association (FLA) and committed to ensuring fair wages across its entire supply chain by the year 2030.

Though we are suspect of a lot of their claims, this one does seem to have merit, thanks to a pretty comprehensive Wage Strategy, complete with factory demographics, wage improvement graphs, and comparisons to minimum wages for all their countries of employment, along with specifical methodology as to how these wages are monitored.

They also scored 71% average on the 2023 Fashion Transparency Index—making them one of just six brands to achieve that score or higher, and well above the average 26%. Specifically, this third-party assessment gave them 90% for Policies and Commitments, 100% for Governance, and 74% for Supply Chain Traceability.

This does give us hope that H&M is truly on the right track in terms of supply chain management, but their sordid history of labor scandals still means their manufacturing ethics should be looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Animal Welfare

H&M’s leather usage makes up 0.1% of its materials and is typically used in shoes, bags, accessories, and a few garments. The brand is a member of the Leather Working Group (LWG) and has partnered with the Deforestation-Free Call to Action for Leather. They also supported the Textile Exchange’s Leather Impact Accelerator (LIA) program in 2023, and are members of its Leather Round Table.

H&M aims to source all of its virgin cashmere from Good Cashmere Standard (GCS) certified farms. 99% of its cashmere came from GCS-certified sources in 2022. 

However, their newer line of beauty products is suspect. While the brand claims to “support […] campaigns like Humane Society International’s Be Cruelty Free,” there is nothing solid to suggest any of their beauty products are either vegan or cruelty-free.

They are, however, largely petroleum based and filled with all kinds of other toxic synthetics and ingredients to avoid in skincare.


H&M Sustainability Goals Are Ambitious

Is H&M Fast Fashion? Image by Marcus Urbenz #isH&Msustainable #isH&Methical #H&Msustainability #isH&Mfastfashion #H&Methicalissues #sustainablejungle
Image by Marcus Urbenz

With greenwashing claims, unethical business practices, and several controversies, how sustainable is H&M?

Well, Good On You gives them a 2/5 for Planet, or ‘Not Good Enough’.

Considering the bulk of their materials include many we wouldn’t consider to be sustainable fabrics—conventional cotton, cellulose fibers like rayon, polyamide, wool, leather, and polyester or other synthetics—we’d have to agree. Especially since materials make up the bulk of a product’s environmental impact.

H&M aims for 100% of its fibers to be recycled or sustainably sourced by 2030 and 30% recycled by the end of 2025.

In 2023, H&M raised the quantity of recycled fibers in its garments to 25%. They hope to reach 50% by 2030, with a total amount of recycled or sustainably sourced materials to 85%. 

H&M Sustainability Report

According to H&M’s 2023 Sustainability Report and S2023 Sustainability Disclosure, they have made several strides towards their goals of a greener business structure. Some key findings include the following:

  • 22% reduction in the scope of three GHG emissions under a science-based target against their 2019 baseline.
  • 64% of leadership positions within their operations were held by women.
  • Their packaging is made from 79% recycled or sustainably sourced materials, and they have reduced plastic packaging volume by 55% compared to their 2018 baseline.
  • H&M launched Looper Textile Co., an independent joint venture with Remondis that provides local communities and retailers with solutions to extend the useful life of second-hand apparel through reuse and recycling.

While we can see efforts to better H&M’s social impact and environmental footprint, the fact remains that H&M is one of the largest fashion retailers in the world, constantly releasing new clothing (often not made of sustainable materials) based on microtrends, which alone is the very antithesis of slow fashion.

The H&M Foundation

Fortunately, H&M’s environmental impact has been negated through various charity endeavors and contributions. Founded in 2014, the H&M Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was created to support initiatives that address humanitarian and environmental challenges in the fashion sector. 

The Persson family, founders and proprietors of H&M, initially invested $180 million into the foundation. Among the foundation’s initiatives is the Green Machine, a recycling technology designed to process textiles as efficiently as aluminum cans are recycled. 

Since 2013, the Persson family has donated approximately 154 million dollars to the foundation. According to the OECD, the foundation’s funding for development projects in 2019 saw a 7% increase, reaching 17 million.

In August 2015, the H&M Foundation introduced the Global Change Award, a yearly prize of one million euros dedicated to enhancing recycling technologies and methods in the fashion industry. 

In 2021, the foundation unveiled “The Billion Dollar Collection,” a virtual clothing line showcasing ten startups focused on sustainable fashion innovations.

In summary, H&M is just another fast fashion brand you’d want to avoid.


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