Environment

H&M greenwashing is 'disguising the reality' of fast fashion

You might have noticed H&M’s recent window displays. These climate activists certainly did.

You might have noticed H&M’s recent window displays that feature colourful pink and red posters. Its slogans, such as “climate crusader” and “eco warrior”, bear a striking resemblance to placards used by activists on protests. 

The inviting colour schemes and big bold fonts look very similar to those used by the global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion. The displays also include photographs of child activists.

“It was so bold in the shop window, you couldn’t miss it,” Tolmeia Gregory, a 21-year-old artist and climate justice activist, told The Big Issue. “It is disguising the reality of it because it’s the first thing you see when you walk past.”

The window in question is just a small part of H&M’s most recent global marketing campaign. 

“THE ONES WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR ARE ALREADY HERE,” the company’s campaign page reads. The jarring, bright red font takes up most of the screen. “They can’t drive, vote or tweet. But they will change the planet. Or even find new ones. We’re shining a spotlight on the people making the world a better place: kids. These are the Role Models.” 

The reason behind H&M’s new marketing tactic seems obvious: sustainability is on-trend right now. According to Garnier’s One Green Step report, 73 per cent of UK consumers want to be more sustainable in 2021. 

And yet, research published in June revealed that fashion brands are “routinely” misleading the public over their green credentials, and accused many of Europe’s biggest fashion brands of being “all style and no substance”. 

The report slammed many of the most popular brands for being “riddled with greenwashing”. H&M in particular was found guilty of tricking customers with misleading claims.

“H&M’s Conscious collection, pitched as a clothing line made from more sustainable materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, was found to contain a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than its main line (72 per cent compared to 61 per cent),” The Big Issue reported in June. 

Some 96 per cent of its claims flouted the guidelines in some way — followed by 89 per cent from Asos and 88 per cent from M&S. 

Gregory and her friends were so outraged by H&M’s greenwashing campaign that they decided to take a stand against it themselves. 

“We were just a group of friends and we just wanted to do it because we cared, and we did it alone,” said Gregory. “If we’re sitting in a window, people aren’t going to be able to miss that. If they’re walking past and there’s someone sitting in a shop window, it’s a little bit disruptive because it’s taking up space.”

The display appears particularly hypocritical given that it was only in 2019 when H&M chief executive Karl-Johan Persson told Bloomberg that he was worried about protests encouraging consumers to “stop doing things, stop consuming, stop flying” because it “may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences.” 

Tolmeia, and many activists like her, are beginning to see through fashion brands’ greenwashing attempts. 

“You will never be sustainable for as long as your business model is based on fast fashion and profits. It doesn’t matter how many organic t-shirts you make. It doesn’t matter how quickly you make your path, get packaging recycling,” she said.

“If you are not addressing the volume of stuff that you produce and starting to think about de-growth and changing your business model drastically, then you are not doing anything that young climate activists actually want you to be doing.

“It’s our future. And it’s not even in the future. Greece is on fire right now. London was flooding last week. It’s here and it’s now. We haven’t really got time for them to continue with greenwashing. It should have stopped yesterday.”

H&M declined to comment. 

The day after Tolmeia staged her sit-in, the H&M store at the centre of the protest took down the offending display. 

People are now putting pressure on the fashion brand to take down its window display in other areas. Gregory emphasises the importance of working together as a group.

“There’s a lot of individualisation within activism, focusing on the individual and the one person, such as the one person sat in the window rather than the group of people who put up the idea. You need people who can support you. I could look through the glass and just get some reassurance that everything is going okay,” she said. “Have a group around you. You can’t do it alone”.

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