Karl-Johan Persson, H&M’s CEO, is concerned that growing awareness about sustainability will be bad for the fast-fashion industry and the wider economy.
In an interview with Bloomberg, he first took on the issue of air travel, a mode of transportation that contributes 2.5% to global emissions every year. Climate activists such as Greta Thunberg sometimes highlight the environmental impact of air travel: When she visited the U.S. in September, she famously came by boat. Persson says that activists and protesters are encouraging people to engage in fewer polluting behaviors, which includes consuming and flying. “Yes, that may lead to a small environmental impact,” he told Bloomberg. “But it will have terrible social consequences.”
Persson went on to explain that he thought that climate change is a serious concern. “It’s a huge threat and we all need to take it seriously—politicians, companies, individuals,” he said in the Bloomberg interview. “At the same time, the elimination of poverty is a goal that’s at least as important.”
There are so many problems with Persson’s statement it’s hard to know where to start, but let me take a stab at it. It’s true that any serious, global effort to tackle climate change will involve major disruptions to the economy. But as the CEO of a massive fast-fashion conglomerate, Persson is perhaps the worst possible messenger to rhapsodize about the complex economic transformation that will have to take place for us to survive climate change.
For one thing, activists advocating for climate policies aren’t naive about how moving toward carbon neutrality may result in short-term job losses. As my colleagues and I have reported repeatedly here at Fast Company, the Green New Deal isn’t just about moving toward carbon-neutral energy sources, but also creating lots of new jobs within the green economy.
But perhaps the real issue is that we wouldn’t be here in the first place if not for hugely polluting industries, including fast fashion. As I’ve reported time and again, fast fashion has wrought terrible consequences on the world. Brands like H&M and Inditex (which owns Zara) have spent decades developing supply chains that produce clothing as quickly and cheaply as possible, forcing other fashion brands to drive down their prices to compete.
This came at a human cost. Factories in the developing world sprang up to manufacture clothes, but workers often labored under horrific conditions. H&M has come under fire in the past for the treatment of its workers. As recently as last year, a report came out that female workers making H&M garments in Asian factories faced abuse on a daily basis.
Persson says that he’s worried about how changing consumer behavior will negatively impact “the elimination of poverty.” And yet this argument obscures the fact that H&M doesn’t use factories in developing countries to be altruistic. It does so because of cheap labor. And given that the company hasn’t had the strongest record of protecting the rights of these poor laborers, this isn’t an argument that Persson can credibly make.
We reached out to H&M for comment about Persson’s statements and will update if we hear back.
So many clothes, so little time
It’s important to recognize fast fashion’s true impact on the environment. Brands like H&M make clothes that are inexpensive and fashionable, rather than durable: As a result, it has made it easy for consumers to see them as disposable items rather than durable goods. Thanks to this mentality, the global fashion industry now generates 100 billion items of clothing for 7 billion humans, which results in millions of tons of garments in landfills every year. H&M is not the only fashion brand that created this culture, to be sure, but it actively contributed to it.
The massive overproduction of clothes has a massive impact on climate change. The United Nations estimates that 10% of the world’s carbon emissions are generated by the fashion industry—which is more than the aviation industry and the shipping industry combined. Over the last few years, H&M has announced several sustainability initiatives, including using more organic and recycled cotton. The company has pledged to become climate positive by 2040. But many experts believe that these eco-friendly efforts aren’t happening fast enough to keep up with the fashion industry’s incredible growth.
As we’ve seen with the spate of extreme weather events and rising sea levels across the globe, climate change is already upon us. Persson says he’s concerned about how changing our consumption habits will come at an economic cost (which includes, no doubt, his own company’s bottom line), but climate experts say that the costs of not tackling the problem are far higher than previously estimated: At the current rate of carbon emissions, dealing with the damage could cost 10.5% of GDP by 2100.
We have a limited time to reverse the course of climate change. If CEOs of highly polluting companies don’t radically rethink their businesses from the ground up, there will be no way for us to avert the worst consequences of global warming.