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Conscious Collection may not be as sustainable as you'd hoped

Sarah Gatenby-Howells looks into H&M's 'Conscious - Sustainable Style' Collection

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Image Credit: Sarah Gatenby-Howells

I’ve always seen H&M as a reliable store. It’s pretty basic, not necessarily somewhere you would find an item you’ll fall in love with or a company that particularly challenges the current fashion landscape; in fact, I think the majority of the clothes I have from there were for my sixth form suit. So when they announced their new ‘Conscious’ range it came as a surprise to me. I suppose they have always been forward-thinking in their approach to outreach with collaborations involving Moschino, Alexander Wang, Versace and most recently The Vampire’s Wife. All in all I think they know where they stand in this saturated market; they know their audience and they deliver: low-prices, seasonal fashion trends and one-wear items. Perhaps it is then surprising that over the last couple of years we have seen H&M shift towards a more conscious, sustainable and even luxury approach. You can now buy cashmere there.

I guess we have to ask ourselves: do H&M really want to make a difference? Are they doing this out of the good of their own hearts, or, more likely, is it another marketing pitch due to their realisation that these low-cost clothes with high-cost repercussions are in fact no longer garnering the same sort of desire in this new ‘conscious’ age of shopping. The rise of vintage and second-hand shopping are evident responses to the ever more apparent fact that we have seven years until the world experiences irreversible climate change. For me there are still questions around H&M’s decisions and for now I am more convinced that it is to get good press therefore increasing revenue rather than a desire to help the planet.

Nevertheless they are demonstrating a change for high-street and e-commerce shopping, taking a lead that should be followed by everyone else. The questions I believe still remain are whether you could shop the conscious line without jeopardising your ‘style’ or outfits, whether the price is the equivalent of similar items in the store, and finally whether it actually is sustainable.

The line can be bought online and in-store, however there is no set section dedicated to it in store. The items are only distinguishable by their green tags, so an active effort has to be put into finding them, concluding that the line is much more easily accessible online. There are 448 items under their ‘Conscious’ tag, ranging from a pair of hair grips at £3.99 to a patterned dress at £99.99 and also encapsulate jeans, swimwear, dresses, trousers, coats and shirts. They also have an amazing variety between your basics and a couple more special and trendy items. When trying to shop sustainably, try and avoid buying into trends opting instead for timeless items that can be re-worn and restyled. Currently, they only have one pair of shoes. But it’s a start – a phrase I think perfectly fits this venture.

Now turning to the sustainability of the line, H&M have pledged to reduce their green-house gas emissions by 2030 and also claim to be using 100% recycled or sustainable materials by then. However, 2030 is a long time away and if the current news is anything to go by it is simply too little too late. We also have to consider that this range is probably about 5% of their inventory and they are still largely operating under a fast-fashion business model. Unfortunately, I think they will struggle to change as the demand for this type of clothing will not be going away anytime soon, especially with our current economic climate. It’s simple human psychology and Fight Club said it best, stating: “We buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.” We are all guilty of it, we all want the latest trends, to fit in, it’s not necessarily our fault, we have been manipulated into thinking it will make us happy by brands such as H&M so, as I’ve said before, I still have my guard up about their true intentions.

I think we hope and pray that H&M will put the planet before their profits, but in a power-hungry economy I don’t see this ever happening. H&M’s Conscious range is greenwashing and, more realistically, is an attempt to make us see the company in a more positive light. However, there are numerous red-flags, firstly the quality isn’t great. It could be a similar story to other H&M clothes – a couple of wears and then thrown out. The price is also questionable. £100 for a pair of jeans, anyone? Their choice of the word conscious and not sustainable is also a marketing trick as it alludes to the latter but really just means they aren’t as bad as their other clothes.

Their explanation of the range on the website is four paragraphs which look more like sentences that include almost no true information. They really only say, “must contain at least 50% sustainable materials,” and, “the only exception is recycled cotton, which can only make up 20% of a product due to quality restraints.” It’s ridiculous in my opinion that they can expect to get away with labelling this range as sustainable when this is the only information available to qualify that claim. Even H&M’s head of sustainability Helen Helmersson has said that they cannot guarantee anything, including “labour conditions.” Their claims on the line have even been investigated in Norway under their Marketing Control Act in Norway which states that marketing cannot contain “an incorrect or otherwise misleading representation which is likely to influence the demand for or supply of goods.”

Although H&M could be said to be making a start, it’s a feeble start if anything. However, I don’t think it right to label them as the enemy. These brands wouldn’t be as big or successful if they weren’t making profit, and as long as they are still making lots of money they aren’t going to change. We as consumers are unconscious enablers for a fashion market that is unsustainable. The power of fast-fashion and a current underperforming economy and growing rates of unemployment means that I don’t think these habits will change very soon. It’s a vicious cycle; as long as these brands are making huge profits they monopolise the fashion market and the only way that will change is if we stop shopping at them. Their use of Instagram and social media means we are constantly engaging with a world of mass marketing, manipulating us into believing we will be happy when we have the latest fashion trends. So, for now, H&M may be doing the only thing they can – making a start – but the reality is it’s not nearly enough.

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(Wearing the H&M's Conscious Denim Boiler Suit, £34.99 and the Conscious Patterned satin scarf, £9.99)

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