It may be a bit early, but Swedish clothier H&M has already announced some New Year’s fashion trends. This month it announced that, starting January 1, it plans to stop selling clothes using fabrics that contain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs are primarily used in outerwear to repel water and oil, and are part of fabrics like Gore-Tex. But they come with some nasty side-effects. PFCs do not degrade and, due to factory run off, the chemicals often enter human water sources—they’ve been found in food and blood samples all over the world. H&M’s decision follows similar PFCs bans from apparel giants Nike, Adidas and Puma. With over 2,300 stores worldwide, H&M is the second biggest clothing retailer in the world, and its decision will have a sizable impact on the environment.
But some question whether H&M can really be an ethical, sustainable company. It is a leader in what’s known as fast fashion: trendy, cheap clothes that are intended to be worn for a season or less and are essentially disposable. Under its label it sells over half a billion items of clothing a year, using materials bought from difficult-to-monitor suppliers. The use of PFCs was also largely superfluous, as water-proof, durable clothes are typically not what people expect from H&M. (In a statement the company says it will use an alternative product to create similar water repellency to PFC-treated clothes.)
Jaimie Katz, an analyst with Morningstar, says H&M’s decision does have some advantages for the company as it tries to manage its image and supply network. “Companies like H&M, they just put out such a sheer volume of products that they really have to know what they’re doing.” The company told The Observer that it now employs 75 auditors to assess conditions at factories.
Taking a stand on the environment will also resonate with the store’s younger clientele. “As a retailer, you can ignore the environmental concerns or you can pick the low hanging fruit,” Katz says. “That’s what this seems to be about.”