Is H&M’s rental scheme just another example of greenwashing?

By Melissa Watt |

Renowned fashion retailer H&M recently unveiled plans to pilot a clothing rental scheme in Sweden. The three-month trial is set to take place in its soon-to-be reopened Stockholm flagship branch and will be exclusively available to loyalty scheme members. For the equivalent of £28 a week, fashionistas can rent up to three pieces at a time from their Conscious Exclusive collections. This collection is a 50-piece selection of sustainably sourced garments, made from the likes of vegan pineapple leather, recycled polyester and orange fibre. It remains unclear, however, how long the rental duration will be.

This move will see H&M tap into a billion-dollar market industry. This comes amid increasing global scrutiny of the fashion industry’s large environmental footprint. H&M will join companies like Urban Outfitters, who debuted their subscription service, Nuuly, in America earlier this year. H&M are also following in the footsteps of Hurr and Rent the Runway, as the rental model rises in popularity.

Head of Womenswear Design, Maria Östblom, is excited by the scheme which hopes to “inspire our customers to look at fashion in a circular way”. She continued by saying, “our Conscious Exclusive collections are made from sustainably sourced materials, so we feel they are perfect to kick off this trial with.”

I should start by saying that this is obviously a step in the right direction. Promoting the scheme alongside the reopening of the refurbished flagship store will do wonders for raising public awareness about the possibility of renting their outfits. For many, sustainable fashion is not yet widely available with its hefty price tags and limited size range. That the Swedish powerhouse are trying to make sustainable fashion more accessible and inclusive is commendable.

Fast fashion is a key driver of land degradation, water pollution and global carbon emissions

Renting also has several environmental benefits. As it stands, fast fashion is a key driver of land degradation, water pollution and global carbon emissions. The production of several (rather than thousands) of the same garments for rental places much less of a strain on the earth’s resources.

But does this amount to nothing more than a greenwashed attempt to make a few extra coins? There are currently no plans for H&M to extend their rental model worldwide.

“We have a huge belief in rental, but we still want to test and learn quite a lot and tweak changes,” said Head of Business Development, Daniel Claesson.

One would probably expect H&M to trial the scheme at several locations if they were really committed to seeing its success. Instead, what is driving this scheme is big ol’ money bags. Profit is the sole motivator here.

Radical, meaningful change must come with more than a few tokenistic actions

Radical, meaningful change must come with more than a few tokenistic actions. The simple truth is that the fast fashion model can never be sustainable. Because, let’s be real, H&M is still a fast fashion brand thinly cloaked in a few greenwashed sustainable initiatives. While they put up a mere 50 pieces for rental in just one store, H&M will continue to churn out hundreds of thousands of clothes and 52 microseasons a year! The real solution here is scaling back their production line. Sadly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

And then there’s the outright laughable ‘Conscious Collection’. What is conscious about refusing to pay the garment workers in their supply chain a fair wage is beyond me. In 2013, H&M promised that 850,000 of its workers would earn a fair living wage by 2018. Yet, workers in H&M supplier factories – who produce 200 pieces of clothing per hour – still don’t earn a living wage. The collection’s entire ethos is contradictory.

The scheme also raises several questions about what will happen to returned clothes after the rental period has ended. How many wears can a garment sustain until it needs to be disposed of? I am of the opinion that the quality of H&M clothes is not built to last. These same clothes will pass through several hands, journeys and washes. They’ll snag and, in the current climate, go out of style pretty soon. What happens then? Are they sent to a landfill or an incinerator? Or will they be shipped off to a developing country? Until H&M improve the quality of their garments, the rental model still promotes the idea of a disposable lifestyle.

The second question begs where the money made from the rental service is being reinvested. Is the hard-earned cash of the sustainably conscious lining the pockets of those who, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about the planet and the people? Will the money be reinvested into improving garment quality or paying their workers fair wages? Or will it simply fuel the survival of fast fashion practices? My money’s on the latter.

This scheme is also at risk of feeding into the ‘one and done’ model that is so prevalent in the age of social media. I fear that this scheme is not even marketed at sustainable consumers but those influencers who can’t be seen in the same outfit more than once on the gram. Research carried out by Mintel found that one in five millennials order garments, wear them and return them to retailers as unwanted goods. The rental scheme might fuel the belief that we constantly need new outfits.

What is one step in the right direction when fast fashion retailers continue to take hundreds of steps back by exploiting garment workers and decimating the environment? Until brands like H&M commit themselves to real, effective change, greenwashed rental schemes are a mere drop in the ocean. Sadly, we still have a long way to go.