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Low Fashion: H&M Has a Pollution Problem

A factory that major brand H&M partners with is polluting Chinese rivers, but I'm still going to shop there. Here's why.

Greenpeace yesterday released the results of year-long investigation into the manufacturing practices of a suite of international clothing brands. The report, which ties the brands to two Chinese factories that dump toxic chemicals into the country’s Yangtze and Pearl rivers, calls out Nike, Adidas, Puma, Converse, Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lacoste, and H&M. It's that last one made me feel really guilty.

To shop for clothes sustainably, there are a few rules to follow: Go to clothing swaps, shop at thrift stores and consignment shops, make do with less, buy from green clothing companies that source organic materials. But my problem with those rules is that following them requires a lot of time and effort, not to mention a more developed sense of style than I possess. In my family, I’m known as a notoriously impatient shopper. On mall runs, my mom will make sure to perk me up with soda or greasy mall food if we’re there for longer than fifty minutes. Otherwise I get as testy as a 4-year-old who missed her nap.

But about a month ago, when it started getting really hot in New York City, I realized I wasn’t going to make it through the summer without at least twice as many dresses as I had in my closet; I had to go shopping. I live in the East Village, which is blessed with a wealth of thrift stores and high-end consignment shops. There’s a store that sells sustainable clothing not five blocks away from my apartment. And I had visited many of them in my search for the dresses and tank-tops I needed. I had not found much of anything. H&M, on the other hand, had exactly what I wanted, and after spending about a half an hour in the store, I had purchased the clothes I’ve been living in since the beginning of June.

Given how cheap the store’s clothes are, I could have guessed that someone, somewhere was definitely suffering so that I could spend but $4.95 on a tank-top. On its website the company promises that it will “be climate smart,” “use natural resources responsibly,” and “choose and reward responsible partners.” H&M also uses organic and recycled cotton, and it plans to use only cotton from sustainable sources by 2020. That all means less to me after taking a look at Greenpeace’s pictures of the gooey yellow effluent that the Youngor textiles factory, run by a company H&M works with, is sending into the world. In its defense, H&M told Greenpeace that its products don’t rely on the “wet processes” that create this type of waste. Fine. But continuing a relationship with a company responsible for polluting China’s waterways does not count as choosing and rewarding responsible partners.

I don’t know that I could stop shopping at stores like H&M—without the dresses I bought there, I probably would have overheated by now—but organizations like Greenpeace offer an option to address these problems outside of becoming a dedicated thrifter. With assists like this one from Greenpeace, customers can put pressure on clothing companies to live up to their ideals and ditch partners that don’t. As Greenpeace argues in its report, “through their choices of suppliers, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product,” companies like H&M have the best chance of changing dangerous production processes in the textile industry. Opting out of the mainstream market can have an impact, but so can buying in.

Photo via flickr user twicepix, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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