This season’s trends aren’t the only thing on fire at the fast-fashion empire H&M. The Swedish brand was recently accused of burning a whopping 12 tons of unsold clothes in past year due to overproduction.
Danish news station Operation X from TV2 investigated what H&M does with apparel that does not sell. The story quickly led them to waste disposal company KARA/NOVEREN. Journalists from Operation X state that they witnessed the incineration of unwanted garments first hand, and estimate that H&M has destroyed approximately 60 tons of clothes since 2013.
The Operation X piece focused on pairs of children’s cowboy-themed pants as well as dark blue women’s slacks– all with price-tags attached. In total, over 30,000 pants, or 1,580 kilos, were destroyed during this investigation.
“This is of course not true,” a spokesperson for H&M stated. “The clothes featured in the program are stopped orders that have been sent to incineration because of mold or not complying with our strict chemical restrictions, which is according to our routines for stopped orders.”
To justify their claims and debunk H&M’s defense of only destroying toxic products, Operation X journalists took two different pairs of trousers that had been sent to KARA/NOVEREN to be incinerated and tested them at an independent laboratory for chemicals. In further comparison, Operation X also purchased two similar pairs of pants from an H&M store to test as well. They tested for a wide range of dangerous chemicals that, according to Danish regulations, would constitute the clothes as posing a health risk. According to the study, none of the pants– neither the ones in store or the pairs sent to be destroyed–contained any chemicals.
H&M countered the tests by stating that the cowboy trousers sent to be incinerated contained an “increased level of lead” in their metal detailing and that the women’s pants had mold. Operation X restated their findings that none of the clothes tested had any traces of mold or high levels of lead. In fact, the “damaged” cowboy pants had only one-tenth of the permissible limit of lead value, even less than the ones purchased at the store. H&M stands by their claim that the tests performed by Operation X were invalid. H&M also made their brand test results available online for the public to view.
“The products media refers to have been tested in external laboratories. The test results show that one of the products is mold infested and the other product contains too high levels of lead,” H&M stated. “According to the test we have, the test for lead performed by the Danish program didn’t include the whole garment and not the part affected by too high levels of lead. The other test performed by the Danish program didn’t include tests for mold. This is the reason why our tests differ.”
H&M instead changed the conversation to that of global safety. “H&M has one of the strictest Chemical Restrictions in the industry and we do regular testing, often in external laboratories,” the company explained. “Accordingly, the restrictions often go further than the law demands as we want our customers to feel totally safe to use our products.”
H&M also assured that products that cannot be sold to reasons other than chemical residue are donated to charity and recycled.
On the surface, H&M does promote sustainability efforts. The company has a variety of initiatives to encourage customers to bring their unwanted clothing into retail stores for a percentage discount on purchases. H&M has also launched collections made with recycled textiles, organic cotton, and sustainable materials. They strive to move to a circular business model to minimize waste.
“We work hard to ensure that we maximize the use and the value of our products in line with the principles of the circular economy and waste hierarchy,” an H&M spokesperson stated. “Incineration is, therefore, the very last option that we only allow under very special circumstances when re-use or recycling is not an option, such as when our products are contaminated by mold or not complying with our strict chemical restrictions.”
However, this is not the first time H&M has been under fire for environmental reasons. In 2010, the retailer was accused of dumping unwanted garments in a New York Times expose.
“We are puzzled why some media is suggesting that we would destroy other products than those required. There is absolutely no reason for us to do such a thing,” H&M said.
Operation X stands by their findings. A professor of sustainable design at the Kolding Design School in Denmark also supports the Operation X study. “It’s dramatic if we’re talking about fashion because the trends in fashion are temporary,” Professor Else Skjold said. “It something is not in fashion, then it can’t be sold anymore.” Skjold cites overproduction and the crowded trends of fast fashion with the H&M destruction case.
We can all agree that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.