As fashion brands continue to compete on customer loyalty and profitability, it is becoming difficult for them to ignore environmental sustainability. Brands like Burberry have made unexpected commitments to sustainability, after burning millions of dollars worth of apparel. Starbucks attempted (and missed) a number of sustainability targets over the years, prompting questions regarding the company’s true intent in its initiatives. The true dilemma is when companies fail to be transparent and honest with their sustainability initiatives or are downright contradictory in their actions, it becomes a difficult task to regain trust in the eyes of their would-be loyal customers, whatever the company’s intent. H&M clearly falls into this category.
H&M’s greenwashing kerfuffle
A few months ago, regulators in Norway invoked the Marketing Control Act to point out that marketing materials a part of H&M’s Conscious collection, one aimed to be more environmentally sustainable, were too vague to be labelled “Conscious.” Specifically, a regulator told Quartz:
“Since H&M are not giving the consumer precise information about why these clothes are labeled Conscious, we conclude that consumers are being given the impression that these products are more ‘sustainable’ than they actually are.”
Journalists were also keen on criticizing H&M for not being transparent with their sustainability methodologies. Katherine Martinko, a writer at Treehugger.com, thought H&M’s Conscious collection was a clear attempt to “greenwash,” to appear more environmentally sustainable than it actually is.
Common criticisms and consumer dissent
Common concerns about H&M’s Conscious collection include that the company has been fairly brief in its elaboration of how its collection is actually more environmentally sustainable.
Writer Tabitha Whiting summarizes these concerns well in her Medium post:
“Maybe it’s just me, but for an ‘explanation’ I’d expect a little more detail than just two short and sweet paragraphs. In terms of explaining why these products are ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, the only justification given is that they use up to 50% recycled material (or 20% for cotton products) in production. However, they don’t go into detail about the types of items they’re recycling, how they’re recycled, how they’re produced, what the carbon footprint of these products is compared to their other ranges, or even what their definition of ‘sustainable’ is. It doesn’t feel very transparent.”
H&M might be appealing to the many consumers who aren’t looking carefully into what the company is actually doing for environmental sustainability, but in order to reach the passionate audience, it inevitably needs to do better.
At the moment, the company has published some insights as to what materials it considers sustainable, which third-party groups it works with to ensure its sustainability claims, and more. That’s a good first step, but more importantly, communicating more with its customer base is going to be crucial in helping the company regain trust among customers who are rightfully skeptical.
Here’s what H&M can do to make things right
It’s clear that H&M wants to be an innovator in the fast-fashion space: to be affordable, profitable, and sustainable. And obviously, the PR team at H&M works hard to get the word out about the company’s sustainability initiatives. Here are some actionable items that will help the company regain the trust lost among a sizable portion of former customers. Releasing the following details about your Conscious collection will help the public better understand your work at the company:
- Through what means are your materials being recycled?
- How are items in the Conscious collection being produced?
- What is the carbon footprint of items in the Conscious collection compared to those not in the Conscious collection?
- What are some milestones you hope to reach in the next year to meet your sustainability goals?
PR @ H&M, if you’re reading this, we’d like to hear from you and give you a platform to clarify these points for our audience. It sounds like you’d like to be a part of the group of companies dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint but you still have some explaining to do.