H&M, which regularly touts its circularity and sustainability efforts, is being called out for allegedly burning 12 tons of new, unsold apparel each year. The retailer, however, has said the claims are untrue.
According to research from Danish TV program Operation X, H&M is said to have incinerated an estimated 60 tons of new, unsold garments since 2013. Following the release of this information, H&M Group immediately denied the allegations.
What Operation X alleges
In June, Operation X journalists began investigating what the retailer did with its new, unsold apparel and many inspections led them to Denmark-based waste disposal company, KARA/NOVEREN. Operation X journalists allegedly witnessed H&M garments being delivered to the company prior to incineration.
The investigation revealed that many cowboy-themed trousers for children and dark blue women’s pants with price tags, were brought to the facility. Additional investigations showed that H&M delivered these garments to KARA/NOVEREN approximately five times a year to be burned.
In September, Operation X journalists obtained two different pairs of pants sent to KARA/NOVERN to be burned and sent them to an independent laboratory. The journalists also bought two similar pairs of pants at an ordinary H&M store and sent them to be tested, so they may detect if there were differences in the chemicals present in the trousers to be incinerated and they ones they purchased.
At the independent laboratory, the four pairs of pants were tested for harmful chemicals and potential hazardous bacteria. Test results demonstrated that the trousers sent to be burned didn’t possess any harmful chemicals and normal amounts of bacteria—similar to what is expected for apparel sold in brick-and-mortar locations. Operation X received the bacteria test results on Sept. 28, while lead test results were received by Operation X on Oct. 10.
Industry experts, including Else Skjold, a sustainability design professor at the Kolding Design School in Denmark, said H&M could be burning apparel due to overproduction. This dilemma is a common issue for fast fashion retailers, including H&M and Zara, who constantly churn out new styles.
H&M refutes claims
On Thursday, H&M Group rebutted the claims saying, “For H&M to send our products for incineration is very rare, it’s only done when they not fulfill our safety regulations (if they are mold infested or do not fulfill our strict chemical requirements). 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 also added that most new and unsold apparel is donated to charity or recycled and put back into the fashion ecosystem. The retailer said it also considers actively moving such garments to other stores or selling them to external buyers if there are overstock issues.
[Read more on H&M’s sustainability efforts: H&M Bets on These Sustainability Innovators to Help it Dial Back Fast Fashion’s Impacts]
In its statement, H&M Group defended that the cowboy trousers sent to KARA/NOVERN possessed a high level of lead in some of its metal detailing and that the dark blue women’s pants may have contained mold. Operation X, however, claimed that the level of lead found on the cowboy trousers was only one tenth of the permissible limit value and none of the trousers possessed traces of mold.
Despite Operation X’s allegations, H&M Group said Operation X’s tests were different from their own. Unlike Operation X’s tests, H&M Group pointed out that its lead test accounted for the whole garment, while its mold test took potential mold contamination into consideration. To prove its point, H&M Group included its test results in the statement—so industry members and consumers can see that the apparel wasn’t suitable for selling or wearing.
“H&M has one of the strictest Chemical Restrictions in the industry and we do regular testing, often in external laboratories,” the retailer said. “Accordingly, the restrictions often go further than the law demands as we want our customers to feel totally safe to use our products.”
Despite the allegations, sustainability has been an important part of H&M’s corporate persona. Over the past few years, the retailer has demonstrated is greener footprint with efforts including recycled material clothing lines and a consumer clothing take back program. Last week, H&M also announced that it plans to have 100 percent of its materials come from recycled or sustainable sources, including organic cotton, by 2030.
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