The Dark Reality Behind H&M’s Old Clothes Recycling Program and Greenwashing in the Fast Fashion Industry

  When you visit H&M offline stores, have you noticed the old clothes recycling bins they put next to the checkout counter? Maybe out of the good vision of “protecting Mother Earth”, maybe in exchange for a 15% off shopping coupon, you choose to put old clothes of any brand into it.
  Have you ever wondered the real whereabouts of these recycled clothes and what kind of fantasy drift they will experience?
  In 2013, H&M Group launched an old clothes recycling project called “Let’s close the loop” (Let’s close the loop). In the story H&M tells, it will turn around the situation where less than 1% of textiles are recycled into new textiles every year, going fully circular by re-wearing or reusing them.
  In this beautiful vision, the small recycling bin carries the “green dream” jointly built by fast fashion brands and consumers. Only now, this dream has become a bubble that can burst at the first poke, and the so-called environmental protection cause is actually just another incarnation of the trap of consumerism.
  On June 13, the Swedish media Aftonbladet released an investigative report on the whereabouts of H&M’s recycled clothes. Of the 10 items of clothing they attached GPS trackers to, none were properly disposed of.
  The other side of fashion and environmental protection seems to go hand in hand is that “Let’s close the loop” drifted across the ocean and turned into “garbage mountains” in Africa and Latin America, slowly rotting under the sun or the sea water.

“Let’s close the loop” old clothes recycling program in H&M stores

  According to the latest developments, H&M Group CEO Helena Helmersson (Helena Helmersson) denied the allegations in an interview show. She said that the group has established a recycling mechanism with its partners. If there is a problem, it is the partner who handles the recycling that should be held accountable by the media, not H&M.
  I wonder if H&M will be able to give the spotlight to its partners in such a “magnanimous” way when it uses environmental protection as a marketing gimmick next time.

  10 pieces of clothing, “complete and clean, without stains or damage”, were put into the recycling bins of eight H&M stores in Sweden, and after only a simple sorting, they embarked on a “world tour” non-stop , which together would circle the Earth nearly one and a half times.
  H&M Group made a promise that old clothes should not be wasted, but should become valuable resources for reuse. On the official website, H&M indicates that all recycled clothes will enter the sorting plant of the International Textile Recycling Group I:CO, sort and evaluate according to nearly 400 different standards, and make clothes that are not suitable for re-wearing into other textiles. supplies. Those that can still be worn are processed and turned into second-hand clothes for sale.
  H&M said they would not make any profit from the recycling scheme.
  But according to Aftonbladet’s investigation, none of the 10 pieces of clothing arrived at I:CO’s sorting facility for proper processing, and two of them were intact or almost brand new, and were ground into fibers.
  What’s more, three pieces of clothing were sent to Benin, South Africa and India, where used clothing is a huge environmental killer. As of the time of publication, there are three other garments that may not have received signal updates because they may still be at sea, but it is difficult to expect how different their destinations will be.
  How did the 10 pieces of clothing leave Sweden, how did they avoid the sorting plant of I:CO, and how did they flow into the second-hand clothing markets in various countries around the world? unknown.
  Now, we turn our attention to Ghana, a small country in West Africa, where we can see the final fate of old clothes.
  There, about half of the old clothes cannot be sold. Their fate is to be thrown on the nearby Chorkor beach or the suburbs more than ten kilometers away. The rotting clothes can even be piled up into a hill nearly 10 meters high. And exudes an unbearable, even harmful smell to human health.
  The British “Guardian” stated on May 31 that the Cantamanto market, which covers an area of ​​7 hectares, needs to accept 100 tons of clothes from Western countries every day, and about 40% of the old clothes will be thrown away as garbage. The Ghanaian government doesn’t have the money and the capacity to deal with it, and now, there is no place in the country for this garbage.
  Used clothing extensively damages Ghana’s environment. The Ghanaian government was quite helpless and had to appeal to the EU urgently. Recently, a delegation from Ghana came to the headquarters of the European Union and asked the latter to solve the problem of dumping of used clothes and the pollution caused by stranded clothes.

  The poor local pollution situation is only a microcosm of the environmental problems in African countries.
  Also suffering from this problem is the South American country Chile. According to recent photos released by SkyFi, a Texas-based satellite imagery group, abandoned clothes in Chile’s Atacama Desert are so large they can be seen from space.
  In November 2022, according to the British “Daily Mail” report, fast fashion giants such as H&M and ZARA are the main garbage generators. Of the 3 billion pieces of clothing produced by the H&M group each year, only about 10 percent is recycled, with the rest being shipped to places like Ghana.
  In fact, before Aftonbladet’s investigation report, many media and related organizations had exposed this issue to the public.
  After so many years, the pollution of old clothes in Africa and Latin America has not been substantially improved.
  These third world countries are powerless to stop the arrival of second-hand clothes. In 2015, some African countries tried to raise tariffs, but it quickly aroused the vigilance of the United States. Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and other countries were subject to trade sanctions and threats. Except for Rwanda, other countries have chosen to compromise with the United States.
  The reason is simple. The recycling of old clothes is an economical industrial chain with considerable profits.

  When underdeveloped areas cannot save themselves, it has become a “politically correct” environmental protection atmosphere, which seems to have brought about a slight change. In recent years, in order to cater to the social trend, many fast fashion brands have set up environmental protection personas, and the publicity is overwhelming. However, on a little probing, this is just another form of greenwashing.
  The term “greenwashing” was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to satirize false environmental practices that only focus on whitewashing. Through effective “greenwashing”, enterprises can take advantage of the wind of environmental protection to achieve the effect of product marketing and image improvement.
  The H&M Group has been trying to present itself as a brand that cares about the environment.
  As early as 2011, H&M made a public commitment to phase out harmful chemicals in garments and leather products; since 2012, H&M has launched an environmentally friendly series of products using only sustainable materials every year; in 2020, H&M stated that all products are Made from more sustainable cotton. On this basis, H&M has successfully created a brand image in the minds of consumers that has achieved circular development by launching a recycling program for old clothes.

  However, according to a research report released by the European environmental organization “Market Development Foundation” in 2021, 60% of the statements of clothing brands including Asos, H&M and ZARA are unverifiable and are suspected of misleading consumers. Among them, H&M’s so-called Conscious Collection (Chinese translation is environmental conscious action) products use more synthetic materials than its main series products. The analysis found that one in five of those clothes was made from 100% synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels.
  In addition, I:CO, a company that processes used clothes for H&M, said that only about 35% of the clothes sent to the sorting machine are recycled. Meanwhile, globally, only 25% of recycled clothes end up in sorting plants, according to The Economist.
  These misnamed environmental protection measures of H&M undoubtedly have moral problems, but they are not illegal. In response to alleged misleading of consumers, many regulators, such as the American Marketing Association (AMA) and the Canadian Marketing Association, have emphasized urging companies to self-regulate by establishing ethical industry standards. In addition, even if consumers believe that these “green advertisements” contain misleading information, they will basically not sue these fast fashion giants for this reason.
  When the cost of breaking the law is almost negligible, it is easy for companies to divert public attention through effective public relations and green marketing methods, “greenwashing” themselves again and waiting for public opinion to subside.
  At the Summer Davos Forum held not long ago, Jessica Vilhelmsson, President of H&M Group Manufacturing East Asia, said that H&M has incorporated climate change into its own development strategy, and has clearly established a plan to reduce absolute carbon emissions. The goal is to reduce absolute carbon emissions by 56% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2040.
  This is undoubtedly an ambitious development strategy. However, no matter how “greenwashing”, it will not change the nature of the incompatibility between fast fashion brands and environmental protection. But anyone who has a little understanding of how fast fashion works, it must be difficult to have expectations for H&M’s ambitions.
The truth about fast fashion

  The documentary “The Culprit of Unrestrained Consumption” shows the public how a society of unrestrained consumption is created.
  Among them, the business concept of “planned obsolescence” plays an important role. It was first applied to the design of light bulbs. The reason is that the manufacturers at that time disliked the service life of light bulbs for too long, so they deliberately reduced the quality of light bulbs to stimulate consumption.

  The excessive production of fast fashion and the excessive consumption of consumers have formed a perfect closed loop.

  This business logic also applies to the fast fashion industry. For brands such as H&M and ZARA, clothes can only be worn for one season at most. Their development relies on price wars and rapid innovation.
  Compared with general clothing brands, fast fashion brands such as H&M and ZARA have an incomparable update speed. From product design to product launch, it only takes two weeks at the fastest. When you buy fast fashion clothes and haven’t worn them for two days, these brands are already catching up with the next fashion trend.
  At the same time, because these clothes are relatively cheap, consumers don’t mind buying them frequently, and they can also discard them without hesitation.
  It can be said that the excessive production of fast fashion and the excessive consumption of consumers have formed a perfect closed loop. As for how much the burden will be on the environment, it has never been a priority issue.
  Every year, fast fashion brands need to deal with a large number of unsalable clothes due to too fast replacement frequency. As early as 2017, a Danish TV program called “Operation X” accused H&M of burning 12 tons of unsold clothes every year. In this way, fast fashion brands can not only quickly solve their excessive fashion garbage, but also avoid lawsuits that may be involved in plagiarizing big-name show models.
  At the same time, the rate at which consumers are shedding “out-of-date” clothing is accelerating. According to data provided by retail software company ShareCloth, in 2018, the fast fashion industry produced 150 billion pieces of clothing, of which more than 50% were discarded after a year of production. According to this trend, by 2030, the total amount of textiles discarded globally will exceed 134 million tons per year. According to data from the China Circular Economy Association, in China, more than 26 million tons of clothes are thrown away every year, and the output of waste textiles is increasing by 10% to 15% every year.
  At present, the fashion industry has become the world’s second largest polluter, second only to the petrochemical industry. According to relevant data from the United Nations, the total carbon emissions of the fashion industry exceed the sum of the carbon emissions of all international flights and shipping in the world, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions.
  Maybe the environmental pollution problem in Africa is too far away from us, but I believe everyone has a deep understanding of the extreme weather conditions caused by global warming in the near future. The latest data shows that as of July 5 this year, the earth is experiencing its hottest week on record.
  In the face of this urgent problem, in addition to calling for more stringent regulatory measures to be introduced as soon as possible, the change in the concept of mass consumption may also play a certain role. After all, the reason why fast fashion brands deliberately carry out “greenwashing” shows that the choice of consumers may indeed determine the development direction of these brands.
  The concept of sustainable consumption has accumulated a certain amount of voice, but at the same time, we also need to be alert to a more dangerous green consumerist discourse that is taking shape.
  Some scholars say that companies are trapping people’s thinking mode by spreading this new type of discourse: “Consuming environmentally friendly products is to save the earth”, instead of reflecting on how the “overproduction” of consumer goods affects society and changes society. of the natural environment.
  Under the influence of this mode of thinking, people seem to be choosing a more environmentally friendly consumption method, but in fact they are still promoting an anti-environmental protection production.