Can mass retail actually be sustainable?
According to The Detox Catwalk 2016 by Greenpeace, Swedish label H&M ranks among the top three retailer giants who have been making steady efforts to curb the negative impacts of mass production on the environment. H&M is rapidly expanding its foothold in India—after Delhi, Bangalore and Pune, Mumbai will have its own H&M stores to frequent. As a consumer, understanding where the brand comes from and the nature of its relationship with us becomes even more relevant to us.
H&M catapulted from its humble roots (fact: the brand originally started shop reselling clothes) to a 28-million-dollar business. Somewhere along the way, delivering the latest fashion every two weeks caused an impact that needed to be accounted for—there was the strain on natural resources, factories emissions, lack of dialogue between designers and workers and the odd bleak case of child labour. In terms of retail, India is a new market but production-wise H&M has been present in India for thirty years, with most of their wares coming out of factories located in Bengaluru.
Meanwhile in Stockholm, the brand’s headquarter is buzzing with a myriad mix of creative intelligence works in the many departments. True to Scandinavian fashion, every last inch is organised, colour-coded and archived. It’s hard not to imagine the disparity between the clean, whitewashed interiors where the designing takes place, and the actual factory space where it is created.
We traced the journey of the garment from ideation to germination and its afterlife—Vogue spoke to Pernilla Wohlfahrt, head of design, and Anna Gedda, head of sustainability, to discuss H&M’s conscious efforts to integrate sustainability.
When Wohlfahrt started at the company nearly 23 years ago, H&M had an initiative called ‘Nature Calling’. Today, the efforts made by the megalith are much more streamlined and focused. “People are always trying to find new ways to express themselves through clothing, but it needs to be done in a conscious way,” says Wohlfahrt. “It’s nothing we need to tell the design team; they love working with a challenge. It’s very unfashionable to not think sustainable.”
H&M today has a special segment called ‘H&M Conscious’. It collects collects discarded garments that are recycled, and by 2020 they plan to ensure that all cotton used in production comes from 100 per cent sustainable sources. Unfortunately, the problems that call for the need of sustainability are not unidimensional. The multi-headed hydra of the cost of production includes child labour, living wages, working conditions, emissions and wastage.
Question and answers
The primary hurdle in the way of H&M’s attempts to make changes is that the company works with suppliers and that gives them a truncated control over the operations. Meaning, H&M outsources its production in different parts of the world, and as a company it has very little say in the laws governing those factories. “So, for example, if we are talking about cotton cultivation in India, we had faced some issues regarding child labour in Tamil Nadu in the past. This is very serious to us, but we are not really buying the cotton and we don’t own the factories—meaning we don’t have a control over the operations of the supplier,” says Gedda. The company now partners with UNICEF, which liaises with governments directly to ensure suppliers follow ethical practices and human rights are not compromised.
If the skirt you love at the store is as cheap as 12 dollars, what was the cost of making it, and what fraction of it reaches the hands creating it? Anna Gedda continues to explain the complex nature of the beast. “One of the most common questions we are asked is if wages are too low, why don’t we just pay the workers more? Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. The standard factory set up is that workers sit in rows and each of these rows are working on different brands. It can be brands that are at lower or higher price points than us and no matter, they are paid the same and work in the same living conditions. So if we are tackling fair work wages, it is not possible to pay the workers working on H&M garments more than their colleagues. So when we talk about the cost of creating a garment, we negotiate and fix the labour cost and keep that aside from the other costs of the garment production,” says Gedda.
You may have spotted garment bins in H&M stores. Customers are encouraged to drop old or discarded garments in these, which are then repurposed to do what the company calls “closing the loop on fashion”. These are sent to a sorting facilities run by the Swiss recycling company I:CO . Most of the clothes received are in good condition and they can be re-worn—these are sold to resale markets. Pieces with minor damage are repurposed as smaller utility items like dishcloths. Then there are those that can’t be reused at all; these can be recycled at a fabric level—what comes out of it is used to make fillings for car seats and other such filling and packing. One per cent is incinerated to generate electricity. “We don’t really make money out of it. We are paid a small amount by I:CO for every kilo, but that’s donated to local charities and some of it goes to our own foundation for funding different technological innovations,” says Gedda.
H&M has some minimum requirements that a supplier needs to fulfil to be able to work for them. They measure and assess the suppliers on a regular basis and score them accordingly. Factory audits take place every 18-24 months, and representatives stay there for 45 days to check everything. Gedda talks about their vacuum-tight methods of avoiding unfortunate cases of child labour, which are woven in with complexities of immigration and wage laws. “We look at the employment contracts; we look at the samples they make, the waste treatment plants, talk to the workers. Our biggest concern is child labour, so we make sure the factories have a recruitment system in place. We make sure they have ID cards that can’t be swapped—there are systems in place but we have to ensure that the 45 days we spend there are not just a snashot of the place. We also have follow up audits every six months,” says Gedda.
With every progressing day, the need to come up with more solutions to attain sustainability is a goal at H&M. The company aims to encourage more and more contributors from different backgrounds to help them come up with new ideas that can be of help not only to H&M, but to others seeking similar answers. The H&M Foundation is an outreach programme launched in 2015, where five winning ideas are chosen in the vein of technological advancement. Gedda concludes, “We will need a lot more innovations and solutions than what we have today and it’s crucial that we find them and fine tune them.”
The truth behind fast fashion doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but the efforts made to change the situation points to a better future.
*This story first appeared on Vogue