On Monday night, Elle Magazine held its annual Style Awards. I love seeing celebrities and fashion icons come out for this event. The outfits are always amazing and it’s less stuffy than something like the Grammys or Oscars. Since 2015, H&M has been a sponsor of the award show, complete with an award called the “H&M Conscious Award”, which is meant to honor someone working toward sustainability in fashion. Former recipients include actress Lily Cole and designer Alek Wek. This year the award was present to one of the founders of Fashion Revolution, Orsola De Castro. Fashion Revolution is a global campaign committed to raising public awareness about the social injustices and environmental destruction caused by global fashion supply chains.
While I whole-heartedly believe that De Castro is more than worthy of this award, I do not think that H&M is worthy of bestowing it. The company owes its massive success to the fast fashion business model, which relies on cheap labor and cheap materials to churn out new items every week at insanely low prices. The clothes are so inexpensive and so poorly made that most consumers to do see the issue with wearing the items a handful of times before throwing them away. Especially since the poor quality fabrics almost guarantee that shirt you bought will have a hole in it by next week. The Guardian, US News, Esquire, CNBC, and The Huffington Post are just some outlets that have written about just how unsustainable fast fashion is, and H&M is mentioned in every single one.
Yes, H&M has introduced a “conscious” collection, but those items make up a minuscule percentage of the total items that the company offers. It also does not make up for how much waste the company produces. Not only are their products continually thrown away like used napkins, but the environmental cost of making all of those clothing items is staggering. The Guardian estimates that H&M produces over 550 million items a year. Thinking about how much water, oil, and electricity it must take to produce all of that is almost unthinkable.
Despite all the evidence pointing to it being the complete opposite of sustainable, H&M does itself a huge PR favor by offering this award. Not only is it seen as prestigious, but it does recognize some truly great women. Orsola De Castro created Fashion Revolution after the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Between this award, the coverage earned from it, and its conscious collection, to the untrained eye it would appear as though H&M is really trying to do the right thing. “Greenwashing” is defined by Forbes as merging the concepts of “green” (environmentally sound), and “whitewashing” (to gloss over wrongdoing) to describe the deceptive use of green marketing which promotes a misleading perception that a company’s policies, practices, products or services are environmentally friendly. It’s an effective, if highly unethical, PR move and H&M seems to have fine-tuned it to perfection.