Retailer H&M explores sustainable materials, including cactus leather

We take a look at the sustainability goals set by the fast-fashion giant

What’s the story?

Fast-fashion retailer, H&M will launch its new ‘Science Story’ collection online on 18 March 2021, and in the United States and Canada on 1 April 2021. According to the brand, the collection will challenge “the status quo by championing cutting-edge textiles developed by brilliant thinkers, researchers and scientists”.

The new line will feature vegan cactus leather, Desserto, made by Mexican entrepreneurs Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, as well as a bio-based yarn made from renewable caster oil, called EVO.

H&M says the Science Story collection is the first in a series of “collections dedicated to promoting the use of new, more sustainable materials, technologies and production processes within the garment industry”.

Is H&M sustainable?

H&M is a Swedish, multi-national clothing retailer and arguably one of the most recognisable fast-fashion brands in the world. According to its corporate website at the time of writing, H&M has 5,000+ shops in 74 markets and made 187 billion SEK (Swedish Krona – about 21.9 billion USD) in net sales in 2020.

In 2020, H&M controversially declared itself to be “the world’s most transparent brand” in an Instagram post, along with the hashtag #Sustainability, after topping the 2020 Fashion Revolution Transparency Index, which rates the top 250 brands in the world on their transparency. The post was later removed after being called out for greenwashing. Here’s why:

  • To even be considered for the index, a business has to sell a threshold of $400billion dollars of merchandise every year. By its very definition, a clothing retailer selling that amount of product each year cannot sustainable, there will be an environmental impact of selling that level of product and Earth’s resources cannot sustain that demand.
  • There are thousands of smaller brands around the world that are completely transparent, but they will never be on the transparency index, because of this minimum annual turnover requirement, therefore H&M stating it is the “most transparent brand in the world” is in fact, incorrect.
  • H&M’s marketing implicitly implied the company is sustainable, based on the results of the Index. This is also incorrect. As writer and fashion consultant, Aja Barber pointed out: “Transparency does not equal sustainability”. You can watch Aja discuss this topic with the Managing Director of ethical clothing store Sancho’s here:

Can fast fashion slow down?

Since the release of the Transparency Index, H&M has been making some moves in its sustainability work.

In February 2021, H&M Group released a 500 million euro sustainability-linked bond, which the company said would encourage it to meet its previously announced 2025 sustainability targets. Sustainability bonds are bonds where the proceeds will be exclusively applied to finance or re-finance a combination of both green and social projects.

The targets that H&M Group committed to achieving by 2025 are to:

  • Increase the share of recycled materials used to 30 percent.
  • Reduce emissions from the Group’s own operations by 20 percent.
  • Reduce absolute Scope 3 emissions from fabric production, garment manufacturing, raw materials and upstream transport by 10 percent.

These targets have been met by criticism for being relatively unambitious and not going far enough towards achieving net zero. Others have suggested the bond is simply a PR stunt.

“For H&M Group, sustainability is an integral part of our operations. This type of bond creates a clear and transparent commitment and incentive for the company. It is an important step in our continued work to optimise the company’s capital structure, while at the same time providing investors with an opportunity to contribute to positive transformation of the fashion industry.”

– Adam Karlsson, CFO.

Could H&M have a greener future?

According to the H&M Group website, the clothing giant is “aware that our entire business must be conducted in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable” and has set “clear ambitions and bold goals” to achieve that, which include driving transparency, rewarding sustainable actions, taking a circular approach to how products are made and used, using only recycled or sustainably sourced materials, creating a climate positive value chain, providing fair jobs for all and championing inclusion and diversity.

H&M Group has set a timeline for some of these goals, many of which should have been ticked off by 2020 such as:

  • 100% of the facilities in its own operations to have water-efficient equipment.
  • Achieving zero discharge of hazardous chemicals from its textile and leather supply chain.
  • Only sourcing 100% sustainable cotton.
  • Collecting 25,000 tonnes of garments a year through its collection initiatives.
  • Only using 100% recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials.

At the time of writing, H&M’s 2020 Sustainability Report had not yet been released, so we are unable to verify whether these goals have been achieved. We have reached out to H&M for comment or an ETA on the report. [Update 18.03.21: H&M responded to our request for further info and let us know its Sustainability Report 2020 will be published on March 31, so stay tuned for our report on that!]

Small, positive steps for the planet

The proof will be in the pudding, when it comes to whether giant fast-fashion businesses like H&M are able to become truly sustainable, ethical and responsible. But the positive news here is that the second largest global clothing retailer is trying, and it needs to be trying.

As fast-fashion continues to create negative headlines around the world and the next-gen of consumers demand brands to be more responsible in the way they impact on the environment, it makes business sense to lead with a sustainability strategy, rather than make it an after thought or a cute marketing campaign. If businesses haven’t already cemented and started to achieve their sustainability goals and objectives, it might already be too late.

“The problem with the fast fashion business is the amount of product that’s being produced and pushed every day can never been sustainable.”

– Aja Barber, writer and fashion consultant.



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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (, and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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