While many brands are moving in the direction of more sustainable practices when it comes to manufacturing, fast-fashion retail giant H&M has really set the bar, especially as indicated with this year’s Conscious Actions Sustainability Report posted last week.

As a brand/retailer that continues to increase in popularity among youth culture in Europe and North America, what they do often dictates many trends to come. In this case, taking another look at organic cotton (even though cotton prices are increasing and many brands have felt the pinch with lower margins last quarter) and incorporating more fair trade practices.

Here’s the scoop from H&M:

“With size comes responsibility and influence. I want our customers always to feel that we do our best to ensure that the fashion we offer has been made, transported and sold responsibly. To achieve this, transparency is key and our Sustainability Report is an important tool to show our progress and challenges,” says Karl-Johan Persson, CEO at H&M.

To clarify and guide H&M’s sustainability work we identified seven ambitious commitments in 2010. All our work-in-progress for a more sustainable fashion future is now also gathered under one name, H&M Conscious.

Among other things, the report shows that:
H&M announced a target for all cotton to come from more sustainable sources by 2020.
A total of 68,000 cotton farmers were educated on more sustainable farming practices through our active engagement in Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). 2010 also saw the first cotton harvest from the BCI.
H&M used more organic cotton than ever before in our products, a total of 15,000 tonnes. This is an increase of 77 percent compared to 2009 and it makes H&M one of the largest users of organic cotton in the world (2009: rank 5).
1,600 tonnes of recycled materials were turned into new clothes.
H&M played an active role in forming the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, working to create a universal index to show the environmental impact and fair labor practices for clothing and footwear production.
More than 300,000 workers in Bangladesh have been educated on their rights since
2008. H&M will expand this to India in 2011.
H&M announced a global ban on sandblasting for all our products.
H&M saved 50 million litres of water in denim production relative to previous production methods. We plan to introduce this technique for all our denim suppliers in Bangladesh.
H&M reduced the energy use per square meter in all H&M stores by 8 percent from 2007-2010. This shows a good progress against the target to achieve 20 percent reductions by 2020.

“I am happy to see good progress in our sustainability work. To remain at the forefront of our industry we will gradually broaden our scope to take into account every part of our product’s life cycle. Our engagement in the Better Cotton Initiative and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition are two important initiatives to increase this influence,” says Helena Helmersson, Head of CSR at H&M.