Excitement was abuzz as Vancouver's Eco Fashion Week (EFW) welcomed H&M to its panel of speakers this season. H&M's presence in the biannual seminars was a significant turn of events, especially in light of last season' s prediction for sustainable fashion. "At this time, I think the next five years will be for the [fashion] brands to take action." says Myriam Laroche, founder and president of EFW. "So we'll see who are the 'talkers' and the 'walkers.'"
Sustainability has been the talk of the fashion industry even before the 1990s. Sadly, up until recently that's all it has been, a trend up for debate. It took a slew of global boycotts to pressure fashion companies into taking real action. But the riddle still remains, how can fast-fashion ever be sustainable? It seems to be an irreconcilable paradox, but of those willing to confront the challenge, only a few brands like H&M are taking the lead.
With a mix of eco-savvy audiences, skeptics, and business members attending the EFW seminars, H&M's introduced to the platform its closed-loop fibre strategy, a solution long speculated but never really actualized in a mass-production level. Pierre Börjesson, senior sustainability specialist for H&M, shed light on this program in his keynote speech, describing it as one of the company's most exciting endeavors yet.
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The closed-loop fibre strategy is part of H&M's Conscious Actions commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle. It would enable consumers to return their unwanted clothes, via the garment-collecting program, back to the company's production, where it is reused to make new products, or converted into energy. This would eliminate the amount of garments going into landfill, while also restricting the acquisition of virgin material from scarce resources.
"In the USA, it says that approximately 85% of all the textile is going to landfill. So that's a huge resource if the industry can look on these garments as a resource instead of waste." says Börjesson. "On a long term perspective, it can massively change how the industry is producing, how consumers are looking upon fashion, how we can make fashion accessible for everyone and not put any more stress on the planet."
H&M's garment-collecting program and closed-loop fibre strategy were launched in 2013. The fruit of those efforts was the first denim collection made with recycled cotton and polyester. Due to H&M's quality assurance policy, at this point only 20% of recycled fibre can be used without compromising the apparel. But the company is adamant in increasing that percentage, bolstered by the positive response from customers. At the end of 2013, the program received 3,047 tones of unwanted clothes from all over the world. In Canada, an estimated 200,000 lbs of garments were collected. The next closed-loop fiber collection is set later in October.
"So this is something that we want to scale-up." says Börjesson, urging consumers to help by simply dropping off their unwanted clothes to any H&M brand store. The company then promises to work with its partners on innovation for recycled fiber, thus gradually closing the loop on textile productions. It is a technical challenge yet to be solved, but Börjesson confidently declares, "We like challenges, so we're taking on that challenge, too."
H&M's attempt to practice the closed-loop fibre strategy is a needed initiative in fashion sustainability. It is an interesting solution, not just for its environmental benefits, but also for its commercial and economic potential. Thousands of unwanted garments turned into a textile resource can be a new source of revenue, perhaps making recycled goods its own economy. Furthermore, a closed-loop textile strategy would better suit fast-fashion business models, like H&M and most of our favorite apparel retailers. In theory, this would allow them to incorporate sustainability without inhibiting their ability to meet rapid demands by consumers. Fashion is, after all, still a business.
It is a juggle of many factors, requiring time and investments. However, when asked about how this would affect consumers, if these innovations would entail eco-premiums, Börjesson assures that these investments are meant to be added value, not extra costs to customers.
"We are not transferring any possible costs for creating our products more sustainably to our consumers. We want to incorporate that in the offer we are already having," remarks Börjesson, citing as example H&M's offer for organic cotton, the fair living wage standards for its partners, the Clevercare label, as well as the garment-collecting program, all of which have no addition on their pricing. "So our plan is not to increase the prices we have for the sustainability investments we do, but actually strengthen our consumer offer..."
H&M's commitments are auspicious, and in many ways we wish other companies would follow. But realistically, implementing such ambitions are fraught with conflicts; the company certainly has its share in setbacks. In 2010, several brands, including H&M, were unknowingly involved in a scandal when audits revealed GMO contamination in their organic cotton. H&M admitted having dealt with the supplier in question, and has since increased its inspection of cotton. In 2012, the Greenpeace Detox Campaign for toxic threads found that 33% of its samples from H&M contained pthalates and NPE's, which pollute water eco-systems. Shortly after the report, the company vowed to gradually eliminate all hazardous chemicals from their production, and has partnered with WWF's water stewardship to improve water usage in its supply chain.
Sustainability will not come easy in today's industries. Despite hard efforts, H&M alone cannot fully guarantee sustainability, especially given the mass scale of their operations. "I think what a company like H&M can do," says Börjesson in reflection of the previous years, "is to ensure consumers and stakeholders that we are working for the right structures, [and] having the right systems in place. If violations would take place, there are correct ways of handling those kinds of situations."
Börjesson claims that sustainable structures and implementations would have to take a global scale, from company brands to their subcontractors and suppliers, before any sure guarantees can be made. That, however, would require transparency on all levels in the business, a state of total honesty that most companies are still hesitant.
"Transparency is important for being clear to everyone involved what we are doing, if this is adequate or not." argues Börjesson. Consumer comments are definitely needed in sustainability efforts, and the public needs to be aware of the issues at hand. "If we're not transparent with our actions, how can consumers be secure, that when they are shopping in a company like H&M that this is the right product for them?"
Consumer awareness has certainly put more pressure on companies, as demands for sustainability are now stronger than ever. Yet, how it would shape the future of the industry remains ambiguous. As a prolific eco-stylist and speaker, Laroche keeps tabs on all the major movements on sustainability, and shares more of her predictions.
"Right now what I feel the most is the fashion industry has to change, not just evolve." says Laroche. Fortunately, this evolution does entail more opportunities; new jobs could rise from recycled fabric becoming a specialty, and as second-hand clothes become its own industry. Perhaps then eco-fashion will stop being a trend, and unwanted garments can usher in more cost-efficient productions. But first, Laroche admonishes, "There will be an investment, from any company. It's about change."