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The Fashion Industry Is One Of The Top Pollutants In The World—Here’s How H&M Is Helping Change That

How are clothing brands like H&M promoting sustainable fashion—and is it possible?

We have truly entered the world of fast fashion. It is a world where clothes production and consumption has skyrocketed to 60% more compared to 15 years ago, and where the fashion industry accounts for the jobs of 75 million people worldwide, bringing the value of the industry at more than 2.5 trillion dollars.

And the growth of fast fashion is not just all clearance sales and numbers and cheaper clothes for everyone; with it comes an environmental effect that has led to dire consequences.

Fast fashion: so much waste and emissions

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), about 10% of global carbon emissions is accounted for by the fashion industry. That’s compared to 19% from the Agriculture industry, 10.2% from fuel and power for residential buildings, and 6% for oil and gas production. Even oil production’s carbon footprint shies in comparison to the fashion industry. How did we come to this?

Well, in the last 15 to 20 years, clothes production has more than doubled. And according to a study by McKinsey & Company, even though people bought 60% more clothes, they were keeping it for half as long. Just imagine how often you think you need to declutter your closet. Gone are the days where our mom would hand down clothes to us. Sometimes, we’ll find ourselves forgetting clothes we only bought months or weeks ago.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also found that a lot of the clothing that’s being produced and bought end up in the dump anyway. An equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is being burned or dumped in a landfill every second. In fact, 85% of all textiles produced in a year end up in landfills.

What’s more worrying is that many of these textiles are very harsh on the environment and are not easy to decompose. We have seen the rise of synthetic fibers like polyester, which takes more than twice to thrice the carbon emission of cotton production. Many of the microplastics—small pieces of plastics that don’t biodegrade—that come from these synthetic textiles also end up polluting the ocean.

Water as a valuable resource

Apart from its tremendous carbon emissions, the fashion industry is also the second-largest consumer of water in the world, according to UNECE. To give you a perspective, it takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt—that’s the water it needs from farming cotton to textile production. That’s enough water to cover a person’s 8-cups-per-day requirement for more than 3 years.

And fashion is not just depleting water from the Earth; it’s also causing major water pollution, as well. According to UNECE, nearly 20% of wastewater comes from the fashion industry. Textile dyeing has become the second largest water polluter in the world since the water leftover from dyeing is all dumped into bodies of water like streams and rivers.

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Paper versus plastic

Many companies and individuals have also made the shift to paper packaging, with the idea that plastic is so much more harmful to the environment.

The negative effects of plastic is undeniable, since more than 100 billion lightweight polyethylene plastic bags are being used by Americans each year (that’s just the US; imagine the global total!), and many of these plastics end up in landfills, where it can take up to 1000 years before they degrade.

Paper bags have been seen as an alternative, since they degrade more easily—but is it a better option? The reality is: “When we compare it to plastic, making a paper bag emits 51 percent more global warming gases, it creates 50 times more water pollution, uses 4 times more raw materials, and consumes 2 times more energy,” says Antoinette Taus. She is a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador and the founder of CORA, a non-profit organization dedicated to solve global issues centered on hunger, poverty, inequality, and climate change.

So maybe, paper products are not really good alternatives after all? Plastic and paper packaging dominates the fashion industry. Not one single piece of clothing is sold without a paper tag or a plastic pouch. Imagine how much of that serves no real purpose and just ends up directly on the trash bin.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if fast fashion continues doing what it’s doing, its share of carbon footprint in the world could rise up to 26% by 2050. So what should we do? What are clothing brands doing to help stop this from happening?

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What H&M is doing to solve this problem

For fashion to become more sustainable, it requires the effort and initiative of everyone—the global fashion brands, the suppliers, and the consumers. Everyone has to embrace the mentality that we have to do something, and that we have to do our part, no matter how little.

H&M, for the past years, has been very active in their programs and initiatives to make their business more sustainable. They have started releasing pieces from the Conscious Exclusive collection, which highlights vegan leather made from pineapple waste called Piñatex; using recycled textiles called Circulose, and even dyeing clothes with coffee waste.


This year, H&M was also proud to announce that 100% of all their cotton were either organic, recycled, or sustainably sourced. And they are aiming to make all their packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Marian Dang, sustainability manager for Southeast Asia at H&M, says that while they have been very active with their initiatives in the past years, the pandemic has really pushed everyone at H&M to realize: “Our actions are directly influencing our environment. It’s making sustainability even more important and we realized that we need to accelerate our journey to sustainability even more.”

This is why they’ve released a brand new initiative that aims to bring them closer to their sustainability goals. Revealed during a digital press event this week, H&M is now encouraging everyone to bring their own reusable bags when they shop at H&M because they will be charging 2 pesos for paper bags. This is in response to the impact of fashion on the world’s water supply and in line with their mission to reduce plastic and paper waste.


H&M has partnered up with Waves for Water Philippines, so that all proceeds from the paper bag sales will go to their projects focusing on providing clean water for local communities.

“We want to educate and make it easy to understand that by not taking single-use paper or plastic bags ta the cash point, you are doing something good for the planet. But if you have to buy a paper bag because you are not ready or prepared yet, do not feel bad, because you are still doing good by contributing to provide clean water to our local communities through our partner, Waves for Water Philippines,” Marian explains.

In the end, the goal of H&M is to encourage everyone to reuse. When everyone contributes to the sustainability cycle, that makes it easier for brands to shift their focus and cater to how the consumers live sustainably. Marian adds, “It’s really becoming aware of what we have and rethink our way of consuming.”

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