Is H&M going to save the world?

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H&M / Philippe Tempelman

Last week H&M introduced its so-called World Recycle Week, calling all H&M customers to visit their stores and bring with them their unwanted clothes no matter the brand, so that they could be reused and recycled. They clearly saved a large budget for their teaming up with pop-star and fashion fanatic M.I.A. (wearing a top from the past designer collaboration with Maison Martin Margiela), resulting in this swinging fashion film/video clip. All for that one special week, in order “to make as many people as possible aware of World Recycle Week, and to collect as many unwanted garments as possible” (read more). A noble pursuit, so it seems. But is it really about saving the planet?

H&M Conscious highlights seem flawless and it’s easy to buy into their seamless ethical argumentation, thanks to a clear design and the naming of “facts.” But let’s take a closer look at some of the persuasion techniques the World Recycle Week film uses. How does it attract its viewers to participate in this event? And how does it positively affect H&M’s image?

Indeed, how stereotypical: the film starts with a bunch of seemingly poor African people watching the news where they hear an American woman say that “the environmental problem is real.” As if they didn’t know. Rather ironic.

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We see M.I.A. dancing on what seems to be a pile of t-shirts, recycled or collected ones assumably, in the middle of a metropolitan city. So the problem lies with the consumer in the West: they have to do something to change the situation in developing countries, and eventually, in all of the world. Of course H&M will help them do that. Now that’s a huge responsibility on our shoulders… Indeed, companies love to shove the responsibility to the consumers, not them.

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Then the Asians come in, very briefly. Some guys in a club, a girl dancing. No sign of any harsh living and working circumstances. Now that’s rather strange, since textile and clothing factories are mainly situated in the developing industries of Asia. But the film prefers to hold on to the stereotypical idea of Africa as poor/problematic/unfortunate region that takes all the world’s problems. Asia seems fine.

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But then what to do with all those collected clothes? Well… what about making some kind of huts? Don’t worry about rain or anything, this doesn’t exist in Africa, since it’s one big sunny desert. They live in huts, right?

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These are just a few examples of things that may look “kinda cool,” but when you pay closer attention, are actually completely without sense. Indeed, H&M’s World Recycle Week cannot and will not change the fast fashion industry’s environmental problematic consequences. By motivating customers to bring in their old clothes for recycling, they are again encouraged to purchase new items. As a positive side-effect, customers will also feel less “guilty” about buying new cheap clothes, as ‘they are recyclable anyway, and so it doesn’t matter.’ This only stimulates the fundamental principles through which the fast fashion business operates.

But what actually happens with those clothes? As the documentary The True Cost (2015) perfectly explains, there is an overload of clothing and textile in the world. There’s no such thing as people who are in need of clothing. There’s piles and piles of textile waste. There’s so much that it would probably be more expensive to recycle all those fibers instead of producing genetically modified new ones. And so, many clothes actually end up just being burned, or buried, as a result of massive overproduction.

Last but not least: those flawless “facts.” Are they actually true? A few days ago, Sara Ziff, famous ex-model and current fashion activist, posted these photos on Instagram:

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Chains like H&M in their current form cannot exist in any “sustainable” way. The throw-away mentality of the fast fashion industry as it exists today will never coexist with true environmental consciousness. At best they can make some environmental consequences last disastrous, but in no way “solve” or “justify” them. Especially not in one week.

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