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Are Mass Market Fashion Companies Really the Worst on Sustainability?

Levi Strauss and H&M Group rank among the top five companies in The BoF Sustainability Index 2022, but the high-street segment also contains the annual assessment’s lowest-scoring company with no points at all.
All brands with revenues of greater than $100 million that transact in New York State are covered by the Act, which effectively means all major fashion brands, from Louis Vuitton to H&M.
H&M Group outperformed many other companies in the BoF Sustainability Index 2022, despite counting as one of the world's largest fast fashion businesses. (Shutterstock)
The BoF Sustainability Index 2022

Fast fashion and sustainable fashion are two concepts that are difficult to square.

Low prices and fast-changing styles can quickly translate into insecure working conditions, low pay and labour abuses within the supply chain. Meanwhile, the fashion cycle churn feeds a culture of over-consumption that drains resources and literally creates mountains of waste. But at a time when even luxury moves fast, are low-cost brands really fashion’s worst offenders?

Every year, BoF Insights benchmarks the sustainability efforts of fashion’s biggest companies within the luxury, high street (or mass market) and sportswear segments to understand the answers to just these kinds of questions. The BoF Sustainability Index assesses fashion companies’ progress towards ambitious environmental and social targets across six impact categories, designed to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to curb global warming by 2030.

The 2022 edition of the Index analyses sustainability performance at 30 of fashion’s largest public companies, addressing the 10 biggest by 2020 revenue in each of the three segments. Performance is assessed using a framework of more than 200 different questions, with companies gaining a point if their public disclosures indicate they meet the required criteria. The results enable like-for-like comparisons and in-depth market segment analysis on fashion’s sustainability performance.

How did the high street segment perform in The BoF Sustainability Index 2022?

The BoF Sustainability Index 2022 Segment Analysis

As a group, the high street segment slightly underperforms the overall Index average, but it also contains the greatest concentration of companies scoring in the assessment’s upper band.

The overall average score for the segment comes in at 27 points out of 100, compared to 28 points for the complete Index of 30 companies. Within the individual impact categories, the segment performs on par with the overall Index average in Emissions and Materials, but slightly underperforms in the four other impact categories assessed.

Nonetheless, more than half of the companies assessed in the high street vertical (six) score 30 points or above, compared to four in the luxury segment and five in the sportswear segment. However, the segment also contains the only company (Chinese retailer HLA Group) in the Index to score no points at all, making it one of two in this group of companies to score less than 10 points overall.

Who leads the high street segment on sustainability?

The BoF Sustainability Index 2022 is based on publicly available information published on or before Dec. 31, 2021. Points are out of a possible 100.

Levi Strauss & Co. tops the high street segment’s rankings with an overall score of 44 points out of 100, closely followed by H&M Group with an overall score of 42. Both companies place in the top five when ranked against all 30 companies assessed in this year’s Index.

LS&Co.’s leading position was driven by particularly strong scores in Emissions and Transparency, while H&M Group led the segment in Materials and Waste.

Inditex, Next, Gap Inc. and Fast Retailing all score an average of 30 points or above.

Which high street companies are lagging?

HLA Group is the only company in the Index to score zero in every category. A lack of disclosure of its sustainability policies and practices resulted in the retailer coming in at the bottom of the high street segment and in the complete Index of 30 companies.

Urban Outfitters Inc. also is at the bottom of the high street rankings and in the bottom five for the overall assessment. The company’s average score of 8 points reflects scores of zero in both Emissions and Transparency and below 20 in every other category except Waste.

The bottom line

No company is doing enough to tackle fashion’s sustainability challenges. But as a group, lower-cost retailers do not meaningfully underperform rivals in other market segments. Instead, the segment’s performance largely aligns with the overall findings of the Index: with just eight years left to reach targets, inaction at many of the industry’s biggest players is eclipsing incremental progress among frontrunners, leaving the industry with the need to urgently improve in every area of analysis.

The BoF Sustainability Index 2022 tracks fashion's progress towards critical environmental and social targets for 2030.

How does The BoF Sustainability Index Work?

The BoF Sustainability Index examines the 10 biggest public companies by revenue in 2020 in three fashion industry segments: luxury, high street and sportswear. It assesses performance across six impact categories: Emissions, Transparency, Water & Chemicals, Waste, Materials and Workers’ rights.

Within those categories, the companies are benchmarked against 16 ambitious environmental and social targets established by The Business of Fashion in consultation with a group of respected global experts. Each target contains a series of binary metrics (201 in total), which BoF researchers scored “yes” or “no” based on information that was publicly available on or prior to Dec. 31, 2021.

More information on the methodology is available in our FAQs, or purchase the report from BoF Insights to review it in full.

This article forms part of a series that also addresses the performance of the luxury segment, with the sportswear segment available on June 13.

For more BoF sustainability coverage, sign up now for our new Weekly Sustainability Briefing by Sarah Kent.

Further Reading

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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