If there’s a disconnect between its mission to sell cheaply priced clothing and its quest to improve working conditions and the environment, H&M isn’t seeing it. The Swedish retail giant—the world’s second largest after Zara—wants to “make sustainable fashion more democratic,” Helena Helmersson, the company’s head of sustainability, told Reuters Wednesday. Sustainability, she added, doesn’t have to be a “luxury thing.” “There is a misconception that lower prices in the stores mean bad working conditions or less pay,” Helmersson said.

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H&M certainly gets an A for its sustainability efforts. The retailer was the world’s top buyer of organic cotton from 2010 to 2011. (It fell to second place, ranking just behind Dutch chain store C&A, in 2012.) The retailer has also committed to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals from all production processes associated with the manufacture of its products by 2020, after pressure from Greenpeace.

In 2012, the company launched the world’s first global clothes-recycling initiative, one that spanned all 48 of its markets. After a deadly building collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,129 workers in April 2013, H&M was among the first to sign the legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord.

H&M has even pledged to deliver a “living wage” to more than 850,000 textile workers by 2018—with or without raising prices at the till.

H&M placed second-to-last in a recent sustainability ranking in its biggest market, Germany.

Despite its endeavors, H&M placed second-to-last in a recent sustainability ranking in its biggest market, Germany.

“What hurts H&M is an assumption that they must be exploiting their workers because they produce cheap clothes,” said Joachim Schoepfer, head of corporate reputation for Serviceplan, the agency that conducts the annual survey.

Although Helmersson said that committing to sustainability can boost the bottom line by, say, reducing water use to grow cotton, improving energy efficiency, or applying fewer chemicals, labor advocates are more circumspect about how that translates to employment.

“There is a direct causal relationship between excessive price pressure on factories and labor rights abuses. It is an unavoidable fact—virtually a truism—that it costs more to produce under good conditions than bad conditions,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, told Ecouterre over email. “It is possible to have both decent conditions and reasonably affordable clothing, but factories have to be paid more than most are currently receiving and the industry’s obsession with achieving the lowest costs humanly possible must give way to a more rational approach.”

Khmer-American activist Kat Eng, who recently spent eight hours sewing outside a Times Square H&M to protest the treatment of Cambodia’s garment workers, takes a harder line. “Put yourself in the place of a garment worker,” she told us. “Would you want to spend your life toiling for nine-plus hours a day with no way to move forward or work on things you actually care about? Their lives are not their own. This is the true cost of cheap fashion.”

+ Reuters