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H&M's response to allegations of dumping textile waste in Global South highlights industry’s problems

By Simone Preuss


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Business |Opinion

Sorting hundreds of tonnes of clothes in a disused factory for a social mission called Clothing the Loop in Phnom Phen, Cambodia. Image: Francois Le Nguyen / Unsplash

In 2013, H&M was the first fashion retailer to launch its global clothing collection campaign; by now, collection bins for old clothes can also be found in the retail outlets of other H&M Group brands such as Monki, Weekday, Cos, Arket and & Other Stories. The company promised at the time that 95 percent of the thousand tonnes of textiles thrown away each year could be worn again or recycled.

In the “Close the Loop” graphic used at the time (see below), consumers were even led to believe that through “innovation”, their discarded textiles would be turned into fabrics and then into new products that would be used for the “Conscious” collection, for example.

Close the Loop. Image: H&M

Ten years later, consumers (industry insiders already back then) know that it is not that simple: textiles are (still) difficult to recycle into new textiles because they are made from a mixture of different raw materials, most often cotton and polyester. This still poses a challenge to the industry today, and in concrete terms only one percent of all used clothing is currently turned back into new clothing.

H&M and other fashion companies can't be blamed for that; developing the right kind of technology takes time, especially commercially scalable technology. So what happens to these huge mountains of old textiles, which H&M described at the time as “"thousands of tonnes“? Some are incinerated, some end up in landfills and others, after thousands of kilometres, in the second-hand markets of the Global South. But since fewer and fewer of the clothes shipped in this way are suitable for resale due to poor quality, they end up in landfills again, only not on our own doorstep, but far away - out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.

Mountains of clothes in Chile’s Atacama desert. Photo: Takayuki Fuchigami Yomiuri The Yomiuri Shimbun / AFP

The Swedish daily Aftonbladet and German tabloid Bild recently investigated - independently - where “recycled” H&M clothes actually end up by outfitting some of them with geo trackers. The findings of the two news outlets were the same: instead of tackling the problem locally with recycling partners, old clothes are sent halfway around the globe. And this is something fashion companies like H&M and others can be blamed for: Now they know fully well how difficult recycling old clothes is and should hold back on promises they cannot keep.

H&M responds to allegations

H&M has responded to the allegations with carefully worded corporate phrases that are currently being sent to the media upon request (without the permission to quote an actual person): The H&M Group “is categorically opposed to clothes becoming waste”, “takes the findings very seriously” and customers could be sure that “the clothes they leave in our textile collection bins are handled responsibly” are some of them.

In addition, “efforts to build a circular supply chain will be strengthened” and had continued with a new partner, H&M said, German recycling company Remondis, instead of I:CO. “We already changed the partner for our clothing collection initiative at the beginning of the year and have not worked with I:CO since. Unfortunately, this was not updated correctly on our Swedish website Schysstmode.hm.com. This error has been corrected in the meantime,” reads a statement from H&M's German headquarters in Hamburg in response to a query from German industry magazine Textilwirtschaft.

Out of sight, out of mind

The fashion company does not only not address the fact that the garments turned up thousands of kilometres away from the collection points, but presents them reaching their revealed destinations as a success: “As the locations of the tracked garments with an active signal in the article itself showed, all garments ended up with second-hand or recycling companies. In addition, Remondis' own investigation confirmed that the garments reached known and adequate partners,” was H&M's response to FashionUnited.

How hardly reassuring that is reveals the fact that despite H&M's emphasis on these being “long-term and certified partners of Remondis”, Remondis is a partner that H&M has only been doing business with since the beginning of the year.

Distributing textile waste strategically

Even more questionable is H&M's next statement: “We require our partners to have procedures in place to ensure that collected garments and textiles are categorised responsibly - either for further use as a product or in the form of secondhand or in the form of recycling to ensure that nothing ends up as waste.”

In other words, the problem is passed on to third parties: The carefully “categorised” textile waste thus either ends up at the recycling company, on the second-hand market or is sold on - to where or how far away does not seem to matter, and neither does what they ultimately do with it.

To appease those who may be concerned about the final resting place of old clothing, H&M adds this tidbit: “We know that sorting and recycling clothing and textiles is still a challenge, regardless of brand or charity. But we also see that more and more scalable solutions for textile recycling are being developed, which is very positive. The H&M Group is actively working on this issue while investing in scalable solutions in textile recycling.”

H&M's in-store recycling system called Looop encourages consumption. Image: H&M

In H&M fashion, the statement is vague and refers to an internal webpage on recycling for details, which in turn points to the collection containers in shops as one measure, as well as recycled materials such as Infinna and Circulose, which sound good but only serve a fraction of new products. The much-praised “Green Machine” for separating textile blends in cooperation with HKRITA is a laudable approach, but does not yet work on an industrial scale and may never work on the scale that H&M would need due to its huge annual volume of clothing and textiles produced. At least we have finally closed one loop - the vicious cycle of promises and greenwashing.

Less would be so much more

Speaking of huge volumes: a simple solution would be to start at the source and stem the flow of clothing, to produce less. But this is not compatible with the fast-fashion business models of H&M and Co, which are based on overconsumption and overproduction.

Consumers know this too, but are appeased with initiatives like “close the loop”, “conscious” collections, in-store recycling and recycling weeks. This is clever, because this allows them to continue buying fast fashion with a clear conscience. The fact that the seemingly circular initiatives have one thing in common, namely that they further boost consumption through credits that only apply to new products, goes unnoticed. Revenue increases and with it the mountains of discarded textiles.

Does fast fashion simply serve consumers’ needs?

A favourite argument of fast fashion providers like H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and others and ultra fast fashion providers like Shein is that they are only responding to a need of consumers who demand ever newer goods that are supposed to renew themselves ever faster. Of course they do, they are not called “consumers” for no reason. Retail and thus “retail therapy” is almost as old as humanity itself - we love shiny, beautiful and above all ‘new’ things.

What these companies are missing, however, is that ‘new’ is a relative and flexible term - it actually only means ‘new’ for a particular consumer. Therefore, it could be a second-hand item, an altered or even exchanged item that has been re-sewn or upcycled, or something made out of deadstock.

This way, fashion brands and retailers could indeed always offer something ‘new’; the possibilities are endless. Does this call for creativity, for going down new, perhaps at first somewhat lonely or even frightening paths, and for rethinking in terms of the community, for the benefit of individuals instead of the corporate bottom line? Absolutely. But anyone who can put so much effort and energy into thinking up ever new excuses and ways of disposal can surely cope with such a small challenge.

Sustainable Fashion