There’s something every month about sustainable clothing — everything from how to thrift, new brands that are environmentally conscious, and companies who are just pretending to be sustainable. “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion”, the most recent episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, has brought the topic back into the limelight at the start of the shopping season — from Black Friday onwards, all the way to Boxing Day. The public eye is on the fast-fashion industry, again.

Fast-fashion companies have been scrutinized for evidence of unethical practices throughout the manufacturing process, practices such as sweatshop conditions in the factories their clothes are made in, to the fact that cheap clothes are filling up landfills. The largest companies, like Zara and H&M, pledged to make changes to their supply chain and manufacturing process to reduce the harm they do to vulnerable people, and to the environment. In some cases, the company means it. In others, it’s a serious case of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is, by no means, a new phenomenon. It’s a term that was coined by Jay Westerveld in a literary magazine in 1986. There’s an article in The Guardian about how the term ‘greenwashing’ came to be, and its development. Things have changed since the 80s and companies are not able to get away with the kind of blatant greenwashing they could in the past. The greenwashing of today is more sophisticated and relies on a few things, particularly in the fast-fashion industry. For one thing, journalists aren’t going to investigate the company suspected of malpractice. And even if they do, it’s unlikely to result in the kind of uproar that caused Nike to change its sweatshop practices in the 90s, or the blood diamond scandal that led to De Beers establishing the Kimberley Process.

Yes, things may have changed after the 80s, but the conundrum is that they haven’t changed in principle. It is true that these days companies have environmentally friendly plans underway, but they use that to cover their backs whenever an accusation is actually made. Then, there’s the First Mover Advantage; companies that have highly publicized their corporate social responsibility programs can draw attention to the fact that they were among the first to make changes in their industry. Or, they can scream that they’re doing more than anyone else is. In the end, their own consumers don’t care. The clothes are cheap, and there are incentives to bring back used clothes.

To rein in the fast fashion industry, there needs to be clear ethical issue identification, professional standards which are regulated by a national watchdog, and an unambiguous imperative to discourage companies like H&M from making claims they cannot substantiate.

The Ethical Jumble

H&M has been trying to position itself as a brand that cares about the environment. It has done so with its Conscious Collection, a line of clothing within the brand, made of sustainably sourced materials, and in-store recycle bins. In these recycle bins, customers can drop off their old clothes and get a coupon that they can redeem when they next shop at the store. What H&M is doing is greenwashing to distance itself from its role in damaging the environment; H&M is a fast fashion brand and fast-fashion products are unsustainable.

H&M’s marketing makes it seem as though the company is more environmentally friendly than it actually is. An example of this is their clothes recycling bins. H&M makes it sound like the clothes dropped off into their recycling bins are made into new garments. However, according to environmentalist Elizabeth Cline, that’s likely to happen with less than 1% of the clothes collected: Globally, only 25% of the clothes going into recycling actually end up in sorting plants, according to The Economist. Of the clothes sent to H&M’s sorter of choice, I:Collect — the company that handles the donations for H&M — says that only 35% of what’s collected is recycled at all.

Right from the get-go, there are ethical issues about a fast-fashion company trying to say that it is environmentally friendly — the industry is anything but environmentally friendly. The apparel industry is trying to undercut competitors and “there’s a race to the bottom on price and quality that’s unsustainable” according to Ryan Gellert, General Manager, EMEA Patagonia. For one, it is responsible for the tons of clothes that end up in landfills.

So, to understand whether it is acceptable for H&M to continue to market itself as an environmentally-responsible company, there are two questions we must consider:

  • Are a few collections that use recycled materials or sustainably sourced materials enough to market a company as heading towards sustainability?
  • Is obscuring the ugly truth to greenwash a company in the pursuit of an environmentally conscious image ethical?

“There are moral teaching to laws,” to quote Michael Sandel. It, therefore, stands to reason that when trying to establish how ethical an action is, one should first see whether it is legal. As it stands, there are no laws regarding what a garment retailer needs to do in order to state that it is becoming sustainable. Based on this, H&M is doing nothing illegal.

The second question is about misleading the public — and this is illegal. If a consumer is led to believe that a product, or the creator of that product, stands for something it is not, this is wrong in the eyes of the law — at least in the US. To illustrate, in 2013, Lance Armstrong was sued by people who read his autobiographies. They claimed that “he used his lies to sell books” and at least one of the plaintiffs said that she wouldn’t have bought the books if she had known that Armstrong had indeed been doping.

Professional Standards: All Bark and No Bite?

There is no regulatory body which ensures that a company’s marketing is ethical like there is for advertising. Most countries have a watchdog which ensures that advertisements don’t mislead consumers. In Canada, it is the Advertising Standards Canada. The American Marketing Association (AMA) and the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) have codes of ethics and best practices, but these require self-regulation.

Based on CMA’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, H&M has broken two codes of ethics. The first is its overarching ethical principle about truthfulness and the second is regarding its universal marketing practice about the accuracy of representation. The principle about truthfulness states that “marketing communications must not omit material facts and must be clear, comprehensible, and truthful. Marketers must not knowingly make a representation to a consumer or business that is false or misleading.” I would argue that H&M is misleading consumers into thinking that it recycles the clothes it collects. In truth, less than half is recycled.

According to the universal marketing practice about the accuracy of representation, “marketers must not misrepresent a product, service, marketing program or make any other misleading representation, even if not directly related to the product or service, and must not mislead by statement or manner of demonstration or comparison.” H&M is doing just this. They are not stating just how much of the clothing collected from their recycle bins are reused or recycled. They’re letting consumers think it is all being reused or recycled.

The Conscious Collection and the goal of only using sustainably sourced cotton by 2020 are admirable, but it does little to address the harm fast-fashion causes. More to the point, the Conscious Collection and the push towards using sustainably-sourced cotton makes it is easier for H&M to lie through the use of half-truths. On its website, H&M states that their recycle bins are a way to ensure that customers’ textiles are reused and don’t end up in landfills. Nowhere does it state that it is only a percentage that is recycled.


Consumers, the company, and the people who live in the areas where clothes are dumped and manufactured are affected by H&M’s actions. In a broader sense, every living thing on the planet is affected by the pollution they add to. Consumers are affected because those who are trying to be environmentally conscious when buying clothes are spending money at a company that has misled them. The company would suffer more because if, like in the case of Lance Armstrong, consumers decide to sue the company for misleading information, its reputation suffers. The work a company does to be more environmentally responsible will be met with skepticism. Closer scrutiny of claims by a company like H&M could lead to unwanted publicity. This, along with any poor record regarding the wages it pays factory workers could discredit the company’s assertion that it wants “a climate positive value chain” and affect sales.

H&M’s actions affect the environment negatively. The stakeholders that are often sidelined, people who live in the areas affected by landfills and manufacturing, suffer the most and in the most personal way. This is because their health is impacted as their access to essential resources like water becomes limited. The clothing industry as a whole and fast-fashion, in particular, is a significant contributor to pollution beyond the clothes that end up in landfills. “Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water globally” and the amount of water it takes to make one cotton shirt is “enough for one person to drink for two and half years”. Not only people are affected, but so is the wildlife and vegetation in the area. Despite the damage fast fashion has caused, and that H&M has contributed to the damage, H&M makes no mention of it. It is true that they are not responsible for taking care of the planet. Nor is the brand responsible for stating all the ways in which its practices harm the environment. Stating what it is doing to be more environmentally responsible by procuring sustainable cotton and by reducing waste is admirable. What is wrong is that H&M shouldn’t make itself look greener than it is — in any way.

Despite calls for making fashion more sustainable and companies like H&M, Zara, and Nike publicly supporting the idea, there hasn’t been any significant change in the industry. If all fast-fashion companies did what H&M is doing, which arguably many of the big companies are, the damage caused to the environment will increase, as will the risk of exposure for these companies. Mass producing cheap clothes and following the same tactics, read greenwashing, like their competitors, in no way provides any real competitive edge.

According to Kant, what is wrong is wrong in every situation. In the case of H&M, lying to, or misleading, consumers has no real benefit. In the short-term, it benefits the company’s revenue. However, there is no long-term benefit. All H&M is doing is staying competitive by mirroring what direct competitors like Zara are doing. This is hardly a strategy.

Shared Value: Making Businesses Part of the Solution

Michael Porter’s shared value idea, which is a relatively new way of looking at the role of business in solving societal issues facing the world, might just be the solution. Of the many pressing global issues, climate change has risen to the forefront. It is constantly in the news thanks to environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg, and the lead-up to the Canadian election, as well as the wildfires raging across large swathes of the US and Australia. There is little faith in businesses being part of the solution. According to Porter, faith in businesses is at the lowest it’s been in decades. The regularity of the climate strikes, for instance, illustrates how important sustainability and being environmentally conscious are — particularly to gen Z.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities evolved from the idea that a company should impact the community in which it operates in a positive manner. It became a way for companies to show that we’re responsible and this bolstered their reputation which, in turn, gave them a slight competitive edge. However, CSR has failed to accomplish its primary goal of helping society because it’s been separate from a company’s core business Porter says. Companies need to go further. They need to create shared value (CSV). This requires executives to think in a new way so companies have a positive impact on society, be it through doing something for the environment or something else, while also creating economic value. A good example of a company that’s embraced CSV and been successfully is Patagonia. They urged customers to buy once and buy well rather than keep buying. They have mobile mending services available across Europe and America for their customers. As a result of the shift away from how fast-fashion companies do business, Patagonia’s profits from 2008 – 2014 tripled.

Instead of making a company look like it’s doing more than it is, businesses should be propelled by marketers who understand the value of CSV. Instead of misleading customers by greenwashing, companies should look for ways to change the way they’re doing business, such as by taking a stake in a social/environmental issue and boosting their bottom line at the same time. If anything, in an industry like fast fashion, where there is so much competition, this is the way for a company to swim into its own ‘blue ocean’. This ocean is a market where there is no, or very little competition because a company has changed the way it does business as described by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in their article, ‘Blue Ocean Strategy — From Theory to Practice.’

Qualities Worthy of Honor and Recognition

Marketers need to consider what it means to be just and how justice fits within the business world. I would argue that Porter’s idea of CSV is about justice. If we consider ‘justice’ as being the quality of being fair and reasonable, we need to think of what these qualities need to be. As Sandel points out by quoting Aristotle, “It’s very hard to argue about justice without first arguing about …. what qualities are worthy of honor and recognition.” While very difficult to turn into action, the codes of ethics outlined by marketing bodies like the CMA and the AMA are an excellent starting point. Anything that violates these codes, even in a seemingly small way, needs to be scrutinized.

Marketers need to consider legal consequences, the professional standards outlined by the relevant marketing association and those who their marketing can hurt. Marketers concerned about ethical practices need to see if their core values align with the mission, vision, and core values of the company for which they work. In the case of H&M, the company is seen to be leading the way towards sustainability. They haven’t faced a legal challenge or one in the market, but an ethical challenge. Limited reporting on H&M’s marketing tactics in the press does not mean it’s not an ethical situation that needs to be addressed. Because H&M hasn’t had to deal with any legal ramifications doesn’t mean that they haven’t done anything wrong.

Fast fashion will need to change its business models to adapt to changing consumer expectations. Businesses that can’t adapt, no matter how successful they may have been, collapse. Just look at Forever 21.

Half-truths about being environmentally conscious and reducing waste won’t hold up under scrutiny for much longer. Unethical businesses don’t last in the long run when they refuse to make changes. The only reason companies like Nike and De Beers were able to survive after consumer outrage was because they introduced policies that were far beyond what was being practiced in the industry. Considering the number of clothing brands that are environmentally conscious, H&M and others of that ilk will need to do something revolutionary if they’re not to be caught on the back foot.

The fundamental question is: Is this ethical? Marketers create campaigns to capture the attention of consumers. They craft ways to communicate messages and value propositions. It should, therefore, be marketers who take a stand for what is right for the long term reputation of their company.

Image source: Jonas Lee