From Fast Fashion to Fast Demise

As H&M operates nearly 4000 stores worldwide [1], its very actions stand to destroy its success soon.


From Fast Fashion to Fast Demise

As H&M operates nearly 4000 stores worldwide [1], its very actions stand to destroy its success soon.

Contributing 10% of the total greenhouse emissions globally, the apparel industry is the “second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil.” [2] In fact, a recent MIT study concluded that producing only one t-shirt has an equivalent adverse climate change impact to driving a car for 5 miles [3]. For a retailer that sells nearly 600 million garments [4], H&M is one of the leading apparel producers contributing to climate change globally. Its business model characterized as fast fashion- churning of new styles, at astonishingly low prices, almost weekly and intended to be worn and replaced quickly by new trends- has led H&M to soaring heights with 2015 annual sales reaching $24 billion USD [5]. Yet this very business model is threatening the company’s own sustainability as climate change will adversely impact H&M’s water supplies, cotton and other raw material sources.

Clothing rations? A likely future

The global apparel industry, valued at 3 trillion dollars [2], and which consumes over 30 million tons of textiles each year [6] relies heavily on water consumption to derive its final products. It is estimated that “several dozen gallons (or more than 400 pounds) of water were required to process one pound of textiles.” [7] To put that into context, producing a t-shirt can consume upwards of 20,000 liters of water [8]. Most the water usage occurs during raw materials processing, which H&M mostly does in Asia- particularly in India and China [9]. Impacts of climate change, however, threaten this abundance of water as many experts are predicting that up to 30% of the earth’s surface could be in extreme droughts (up from today’s 1%) by 2090s [10]. Some of the most vulnerable regions identified are Pakistan and India, which would greatly impact H&M’s supply chain [10].

Furthermore, the apparel industry, and H&M specifically, is extremely reliant on cotton as the primary raw material used in production. Currently, over 22 million tons of cotton are produced each year [11] and about 40% of all materials used in clothing are “agriculturally derived” [7]. While H&M does not publicly disclose how much cotton it uses, a quick peruse on the website shows that most products contain cotton. Although cotton is a resilient plant and will respond well to slightly higher temperatures (higher yields) and higher CO2 levels (increased photosynthesis), it will get severely negatively impacted from other by-products of climate change, including drought, humidity, increased pests and weeds, and lack of water (which is crucial for growth) [12]. Without its primary raw material, H&M’s fast fashion, low margin business model becomes incredibly threatened.

How do we avoid a jean-less world?

It would be amiss to say that H&M does not recognize that it is both a huge contributor to climate change and very much susceptible to its effects. Thus, the company has undertaken drastic efforts to reduce its negative environmental impact, but also prepare itself for the somewhat impending doom. First off, 31% of the cotton that H&M uses is organic, with the aim to achieve 100% organic cotton use by 2020 [1]. The use of organic cotton will help reduce environmental impacts during production, however, does not particularly hedge H&M against the risk of cotton shortages due to climate change [13].  However, H&M’s new clothing recycle program which aims at closing the loop on its value chain that does help H&M in light of future risk. Between 2013-2015, H&M stores collected 23,027 tonnes of clothing to be reused and recycled [13]. This decreases the need for raw materials, thus eliminating impacts on water and CO2 emissions and it also allows H&M to protect itself against raw material and water shortages in the future.

Furthermore, in 2015, H&M has used 78% renewable energy in their own total use and has dedicated countless initiatives through its H&M Sustainability and Conscious projects to reducing its own impact and preparing for future climate change effects [14].

Can Fast Fashion and Sustainability coexist though?

With all of this in mind, even with the number of projects that H&M is undertaking, I believe it is not enough. A recent Guardian article put it best: “H&M: can fast fashion and sustainability ever really mix?” [15]. If the very aim of the business model is to produce and sell more, more, and more (!)- it is simply impossible to 1) eliminate H&M’s negative impact on our world and 2) sustain its use of resources as they get impacted by climate change. I believe that H&M would have to drastically alter its model and turn more towards slow fashion, relying on a closed-loop recycled model and renewable energy to operate in a world affected by climate change.

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[1] H&M, 2015 Annual Report, p. 11,, accessed November 2016.

[2] James Conca, “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming,” Forbes, December 3, 2015,, accessed November 2016.

[3] Randolph Kirchain, Elsa Olivetti, T Reed Miller and Suzanne Greene, “Sustainable Apparel Materials,” Materials Systems Laboratory Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015,, accessed November 2016.

[4] H&M, “Press Releases,”, accessed November 2016.

[5] H&M, 2015 Annual Report, p. 54,, accessed November 2016.

[6]  Hsiou-Lien Chen and Leslie Davis Burns, “Environmental Analysis of Textile Products,”

Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, July 2006, p. 248-261.

[7] Randolph Kirchain, Elsa Olivetti, T Reed Miller and Suzanne Greene, “Sustainable Apparel Materials,” Materials Systems Laboratory Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015,, accessed November 2016.

[8] H&M, “Cotton,”, accessed November 2016.

[9] H&M, “Sustainability Impact,”, accessed November 2016.

[10] Rebecca M. Henderson, Sophus A. Reinert, Polina Dekhtyar, and Amram Migdal, “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” HBS No. N2-317-032 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016), p. 4.

[11] The Economist Intelligence Unit, N.A. Inc., “World: Commodities – EIU’s monthly cotton outlook,” November 1, 2016, via The Economist, accessed November 2016.

[12] Peter Ton, “Cotton & Climate change: Impacts and options to mitigate and adapt,” 9,, accessed November 2016.

[13] Shen, B. Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Lessons from H&M. Sustainability 20146, 6236-6249.

[14] H&M, 2015 Conscious Actions Sustainability Report 2015, p. 76,, accessed November 2016.

[15] Oliver Balch, “H&M: can fast fashion and sustainability ever really mix?,” The Guardian, May 3, 2013,, accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on From Fast Fashion to Fast Demise

  1. Interesting take. I love the almost existential (!) question you pose about the fundamental tension between fast-fashion and sustainable fashion existing as one.

    This strikes me as something that is as much the customer’s responsibility as the retailers themselves. In a commercial market, there will always be businesses that look to exploit certain situations in order to maximise shareholder returns. If the customers continue to exist (as they do with H&M) then businesses will continue to serve them. Thus, it is difficult to envisage H&M voluntarily moving towards more responsible, sustainable businesses practices if those changes weaken the customer proposition (e.g. increasing prices, reducing choice).

    Instead, customers need to vote with the shopping choices they make. That is, refrain from the toxic fast-fashion proposition that H&M represents, in favour of more ethically sourced offerings. Short of government legislation, this is the only way to really make brands like H&M sit up and take notice.

  2. I completely agree with your take on H&M’s business model being fundamentally in conflict with a goal of sustainability. However, I am unsure how shifting to “slow fashion” and relying on recycling efforts would actually make much of an impact. I am not an expert in retail manufacturing by any means, but it seems that the main source of emissions is coming from the actual production of the clothing, which will continue to exist for all manufacturing for the time being. As you pointed out, H&M is one of the leading apparel producers globally. To me this means that they have the potential to influence their supply chain partners, and have the ability to push for innovation that drives overall emissions down in the future. Setting their targets to this task, although seemingly impossible currently, can hopefully start the ball rolling and make a bigger impact going forward!

  3. JL, really interesting take on H&M and I think your point on the reduction of environmental impact due to the use of organic cotton is fascinating. Organic is something that has gone mainstream in food, yet still seems relatively under-marketed in clothing (at lease to a non-fashion forward guy like me). I’d also love to learn more about H&M’s clothing recycle program. While I understand that eliminating the need to produce additional cotton for newly produced shirts, I’m curious about how difficult it is to recycle cotton already used for old clothing. Honestly, the primary clothing recycling I’m currently aware of is donating clothes to charity organizations. It feels like it may be difficult to unweave / un-dye cotton that has already been turned into a certain type of cloth or dyed a current color, but it would be absolutely incredible if it was possible to turn my old ratty t-shirts into a new (perhaps more fashion forward) shirt!

  4. Very interesting! In addition to the move to organic cotton, it looks like a number of fast fashion retailers are moving to synthetic materials as well. Not if synthetic materials were any more sustainable.
    I would love to know more about your take on H&M’s Conscious Collection as well – to what extent are they developing this to resolve their own raw material constraints vs to appeal to a niche customer segment that may care about sustainability?

  5. I agree with many of the commenters above in their appreciation for your interesting question around whether fast fashion and sustainability are fundamentally at odds. I think it is. It begs the question on whether a move towards slow fashion would do anything to dramatically alter the industry? Whereas with IKEA, we discussed how they could create incentives for suppliers and put pressure on competitors to invest in long term sustainability, I’m not sure that H&M holds similar power. It is perhaps too much of a low margin, commoditized business that if H&M shifted towards more of a traditional, slow fashion model, that someone else (i.e. the Zaras or the Forever 21s) would swoop right in and take their place?

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