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Despite making positive strides towards sustainability, H&M still bears the brunt when it comes to consumer opinion on which brands are the most eco-focused. Wolff Ollins global chief executive officer Sairah Ashman questions why. 

Rewind back to 2010 when H&M first launched its Conscious Collection of clothing made from organic cotton, recycled polyester and other sustainable materials. That same year, the Garment Collecting initiative was unveiled, with the aim of closing the loop for textiles, making H&M the first fashion company to collect old textiles in stores globally for reuse and recycling. 

Five years later, the H&M Foundation announced the Global Change Award, supporting innovation for a more circular fashion-focused industry, and in 2017 the group set new sustainability goals: to use only recycled and sustainably-produced materials by 2030 and to be climate positive throughout the value chain by 2040. By 2020 the brand showcased its new Conscious Exclusive range and currently has a sustainability-linked bond – truly putting its money where its mouth is.

So we were surprised to learn that the 9000 consumers recently surveyed for Wolff Olins and Hall & Partners’ inaugural Conscious Brands Report placed H&M outside the top 100 globally, while only gaining 80th place in the UK 100 – beaten by high street rival Uniqlo in every market and with Zara doing the same except in the UK.

Despite all the aforementioned efforts, something isn’t resonating as strongly as it could with consumers. On the face of it, the brand has solid credentials compared to others in its sector, so what’s going wrong?

H&M’s audience doesn’t seem to love the brand any better for their sustainable stance – but why is that? Because it doesn’t seem authentic enough? Or because its consumers are currently happy to have something less sustainable? If you are into fast fashion, what do you value more – the fast or the sustainable?

Looking at the positives, H&M scores highly for speaking up and finding new ways to inspire consumers – both globally and in the UK – while scoring low for innovating and creating a sense of community, which may explain some of its challenges.

Historically the brand has been seen as a pioneer in the arena of partnerships and sustainability, but now these are mainstream ideas being championed by many others too. And while speaking up is very positive, there have also been a few missteps along the way – in 2019 the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) called out the clothing retailer for providing ‘insufficient’ information about the sustainable nature of its Conscious Collection. Add to this concerns around the wages paid to garment workers that continue to plague brands like H&M, and the depth of commitment may well be questioned.

But some brands did manage to buck the trend within fashion. While fast fashion, high street fashion and luxury fashion brands all struggled to find a top spot in the rankings, Uniqlo, Patagonia and Levi’s all made various market Top 30 lists.

Patagonia is synonymous with the conscious brand movement and has been from its evolution – it is the poster child and, as you might expect, scored well for ‘speaks up for what’s right and wrong in the world’. 

Uniqlo reflected the essentialism of 2020 and has built up a strong customer base that wants solid staples and well-made basics – which became essential as we all sat at home last year. Consumers surveyed for the ranking scored the brand particularly strongly for ‘inspires diversity and inclusion’. Uniqlo may not be front of mind in the context of DE&I conversations amongst marketers, yet consumers feel the brand is consistently presenting different races, genders and ages in an aspirational light to a mainstream audience. And in the case of Levi’s, the brand’s commitments to reduce water usage and its encouragements to ‘Buy Better, Wear Longer’ appear to be resonating.

All three brands transcend fashion and focus on the basics and classics, with a confidence about what they are doing. They have the ability to become an everyday choice and develop a deeper engagement with their customers. Everyone has gotten past the humblebrag – big gestures from brands don’t often result in the meaningful customer relationships that can be built through a more intimate dialogue, which ultimately is needed to create advocates. 

Just after our market research was conducted, H&M appointed actor Maisie Williams as its ‘global sustainability ambassador’ – a big announcement that was followed by accusations of greenwashing. The furor, unfortunately, eclipsed the news of the brand’s collaboration with game-of-the-moment Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which featured a sustainability-themed island for gamers to explore, designed to promote H&M’s recently-launched garment recycling machine Loop. 

The brand is clearly trying to attract the conscious consumer, but our survey suggests a degree of skepticism or perhaps fatigue from consumers. With its latest sustainability goals, H&M has the opportunity to drive the dialogue across the industry and have customer conversations in a more front-footed way, while their smarter collaborations could see the conscious conversation move out of the virtuous campaign-led sphere and into every day – something which would benefit the industry as a whole.

Sairah Ashman is global chief executive officer of Wolff Olins.