This week, representatives from all the major brands – from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Asos and Zara, through to luxury labels like Burberry and Swarowski – are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss sustainability in the global fashion industry.
The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative and destructive industries on earth. It generates €1.5 trillion every year and produces over a billion clothes every year. With global garment production set to increase by 63% by 2030, this model is reaching its physical limit.
This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit is focusing on “circularity” – an industry buzzword that promises relief to the problem of limited resources within one of the world’s most resource intensive industries. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste. The Summit admits that the industry has a disastrous environmental impact and that we face “increasingly higher risk of destabilising the state of the planet, which would result in sudden and irreversible environmental changes”.
While their focus on circularity sounds promising, it’s simply not enough.
Industry leaders rarely talk about the real solution: reducing the overall volume of production. All their talk about sustainable investing and innovative new materials and technologies comes under the assumption that the industry continues to grow. But unlimited growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources.
The industry wants to place the responsibility on consumers to educate themselves and recycle their own clothes, while continuing to heavily market cheap fast fashion at us.
Real change is not going to happen without investing in designs and strategies to extend the life of clothing and reduce the environmental impact of production at the design stage. Fashion brands need to redefine their marketing strategies and start involving customers in a new narrative where people buy less and clothes are more durable and repairable. We need to slow down.
It’s not enough to sell customers placebo solutions that ultimately leave shopping patterns untouched and guilt free. Even if we encourage people to recycle more, we have to remember that recycling is a resource intensive process relying on chemicals and vast amounts of energy, with many unsolved problems making it far from commercially viable.
We already know that we own more clothes than we can wear. Shopping doesn’t make us happy in the long run. High volumes of fast fashion and rapidly changing trends aren’t catering to our real needs.
If the Fashion industry really wants to be “an engine for a global and sustainable development”, it needs to think about how to shift the business model beyond the current paradigm of continuous economic growth. We hope that the fashion industry doesn’t wait until 2030 to realise that.
A new survey, commissioned by Greenpeace, of the shopping habits of people in Europe and Asia finds that regularly buying too many clothes, shoes, bags and accessories has become an international phenomenon. This is especially striking in China and Hong Kong, but is also widespread in Europe, with up to half of consumers buying more clothes than they need and use.
Overconsumption of fashion is now deeply entrenched in our everyday culture, both in old European economies and in emerging ones such as China. In many ways, China is currently leading this trend, with more than half of Chinese consumers owning more clothes and bags than they need. Almost half of Chinese consumers buy more than they can afford – and more than makes them happy, and around 40 percent qualify as excessive shoppers, shopping compulsively more than once a week. Young, high-income women are the most vulnerable. The spread of online shopping and social media makes people even more susceptible to overconsumption.
These people are not shopping because they need something new – their motivation is the longing for excitement, satisfaction and confidence in front of others. Shoppers also seek to release stress, kill time and relieve boredom.
However, shopping does not make them happy; people already own too much and they know it. Around 50 percent report that their shopping excitement wears off within a day. A third of the East Asians feel even more empty and unfulfilled afterwards. They also seem to know they are on the wrong path; around half of consumers are hiding their purchases from others, fearing accusations of wasting money or other negative reactions.
Shopping behaviour is widely influenced by people’s social environment and media consumption. Social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or WeChat in China are driving shopping mania, especially among young digitally connected East Asians. Browsing fashion blogs or following friends and celebrities triggers even more buying. After excessive shopping people experience regular tiredness and boredom – the binge is followed by a hangover.
About this survey
For this survey commissioned by Greenpeace, independent survey institutes Nuggets, TNS and SWG asked European and East Asian consumers about their shopping habits (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, Germany) – how often, where and for how long they shop for clothing. We also wanted to know why they go shopping, what triggers them to buy new clothes – and whether they get fulfilled by doing so. All surveys are representative and were carried out between December 2016 and March 2017 amongst at least 1000 people aged 20 to 45 in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy and Germany.
Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment
It is not a brand synonymous with style, but WWF, the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is teaming up with a London-based online fashion community to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range.
Big-name stores including Selfridges and Harrods are being lined up to sell the range in the UK, but WWF wants to make this a global project. It is determined to prove to the fashion industry that it is possible to design and produce clothes with zero impact on the environment.
“It’s hugely challenging,” says Alfredo Orobio, founder of the online community AwaytoMars that is working with WWF. “Everything from the buttons, zippers, labels, tags and packaging to the fabric and production process itself – all of it has to be sustainable.”
Orobio was approached at the end of last year. The project was attracted by the way his crowdsourcing platform allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to have a hand in making clothes. Participants in the community upload their design ideas and the best ones will be chosen for the final collection, which is code-named “The New Normal Project”. It will be overseen by the Nordic Fashion Week Organisation, based in Finland. All profits from the venture will go to WWF.
The clothes will use a newly designed cotton fibre, from a Finnish startup called Infinited Fiber, that can be recycled an infinite number of times and which won’t, in theory, wear out. But this project goes way beyond the fabric, Orobio says. In a detailed 150-page document, WWF has stipulated “all the things we can’t do”.
“So it’s about finding the right suppliers, for example, and not using any pigments, only natural colour,” he says. “The whole of the production process has to be sustainable, even the lights and energy. The seamstresses must be paid a living wage, all the packaging will be recyclable, the trimmings, the labels, the tags.”
All of that is expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, which is one of the main reasons that sustainable fashion has yet to take off. But Orobio believes the bigger barrier is the lack of consumer buy-in and the fact that most shoppers are unaware of how polluting the industry is – fashion and textiles, says bestselling US designer Eileen Fisher, are second only to the oil industry as the biggest polluters on the planet.
It is not just the energy-intensive process of making the garments, the reality is that most of the clothes we wear end up in landfill. According to a recent Greenpeace report, the average European consumer now buys 60% more clothing items a year and keeps them for half as long as 15 years ago.
Synthetic fibres are one of the biggest problems. Manufacturing polyester, for example, which is already present in 60% of clothing, produces almost three times more carbon dioxide than organic cotton, and it can take decades to degrade – as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres. And around 21 million tons of polyester was used in clothing last year, up 157% from 2000.
“Cheap fast fashion is a huge obstacle to a more sustainable industry,” says Tom Cridland, who started his own green fashion brand three years ago with a £6,000 government startup loan. “Theoretically, a 100% sustainable fashion collection is not impossible but we need more brands to promote buying less but buying better.”
Cridland’s unique selling point is the 30-year guarantee he attaches to his T-shirts, jackets and trousers. The notion that we can buy an item of clothing and keep it for much longer is taking off, he says, with sales now over £1m a year.
Karinna Nobbs, a lecturer at London College of Fashion, thinks WWF’s involvement could make some difference, but ultimately sustainable fashion needs big-name front-runners to make it more of an industry norm.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think we’re truly in danger of ruining the planet,” she says.
Some big-name designers are already putting sustainability at the forefront of their brands. At a recent speech on sustainability at London College of Fashion Stella McCartney declared that her industry was “getting away with murder” yet even her latest collection is only 53% sustainable.
One of the key barriers to consumer take-up is that the expense involved in turning every part of the life cycle of a garment green means the cost of sustainable clothing is out of the reach of most. Current prices at AwayToMars, for example, range from £50 for a T-shirt to £390 for a wool jacket. Cridland’s signature 30-year jacket costs £190 while a T-shirt is £35.
Of course Cridland and the sustainable fashion movement argue that you end up spending more in the long term with a fast-fashion route, but others say that is part of the attraction – the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.
Fashion lecturer Nobbs believes the industry is close to a tipping point. “Prices will normalise – they will have to as more brands get involved in sustainable clothing,” she says.
Orobio agrees that price is an issue but says he is undaunted. “My main goal is to be affordable – I don’t want to exclude the people who design for us,” he says. He believes that people will want WWF collection pieces because they will be “buying a piece with a huge story. It’s very different form buying something from Zara that was just copied”.
His online community will start having their say on the new WWF project from next month, and the aim will be to come up with six to 10 different looks. The prototype of the collection will be shown at the Helsinki Fashion Week in July.
Pollution created by making and dyeing clothes has pitted the fashion industry and environmentalists against each other. Now, the advent of “fast fashion” — trendy clothing affordable enough to be disposable — has strained that relationship even more. But what if we could recycle clothes like we recycle paper, or even upcycle them? Scientists report today new progress toward that goal.
The team will present the work at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features more than 14,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.
“People don’t want to spend much money on textiles anymore, but poor-quality garments don’t last,” Simone Haslinger explains. “A small amount might be recycled as cleaning rags, but the rest ends up in landfills, where it degrades and releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Also, there isn’t much arable land anymore for cotton fields, as we also have to produce food for a growing population.”
All these reasons amount to a big incentive to recycle clothing, and some efforts are already underway, such as take-back programs. But even industry representatives admit in news reports that only a small percentage gets recycled. Other initiatives shred used clothing and incorporate the fibers into carpets or other products. But Haslinger, a doctoral candidate at Aalto University in Finland, notes that this approach isn’t ideal since the carpets will ultimately end up in landfills, too.
A better strategy, says Herbert Sixta, Ph.D., who heads the biorefineries research group at Aalto University, is to upcycle worn-out garments: “We want to not only recycle garments, but we want to really produce the best possible textiles, so that recycled fibers are even better than native fibers.” But achieving this goal isn’t simple. Cotton and other fibers are often blended with polyester in fabrics such as “cotton-polyester blends,” which complicates processing.
Previous research showed that many ionic liquids can dissolve cellulose. But the resulting material couldn’t then be re-used to make new fibers. Then about five years ago, Sixta’s team found an ionic liquid — 1,5-diazabicyclo[4.3.0]non-5-ene acetate — that could dissolve cellulose from wood pulp, producing a material that could be spun into fibers. Later testing showed that these fibers are stronger than commercially available viscose and feel similar to lyocell. Lyocell is also known by the brand name Tencel, which is a fiber favored by eco-conscious designers because it’s made of wood pulp.
Building on this process, the researchers wanted to see if they could apply the same ionic liquid to cotton-polyester blends. In this case, the different properties of polyester and cellulose worked in their favor, Haslinger says. They were able to dissolve the cotton into a cellulose solution without affecting the polyester.
“I could filter the polyester out after the cotton had dissolved,” Haslinger says. “Then it was possible without any more processing steps to spin fibers out of the cellulose solution, which could then be used to make clothes.”
To move their method closer to commercialization, Sixta’s team is testing whether the recovered polyester can also be spun back into usable fibers. In addition, the researchers are working to scale up the whole process and are investigating how to reuse dyes from discarded clothing.
But, Sixta notes, after a certain point, commercializing the process doesn’t just require chemical know-how. “We can handle the science, but we might not know what dye was used, for example, because it’s not labeled,” he says. “You can’t just feed all the material into the same process. Industry and policymakers have to work on the logistics. With all the rubbish piling up, it is in everyone’s best interest to find a solution.”
Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.
Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.
When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.
So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?
You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?
Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.
It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.
What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.
Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.
The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.
We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.
It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.
More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.
So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.
I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.
As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.
Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.
Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.
ADIDAS is envisioning a brand new way of adapting to the fickle trends of the fast fashion industry – the company has been trying out an in-store technology to knit customized 200 euro (US$215) sweaters for customers within the day in order to tap into fast fashion with a personal twist.
The technology has been implemented in a pop-up store in a Berlin mall, and allowed customers to customize their own merino wool sweater according to their desires.
The in-store machine scans the customer’s body to produce the right fit and size unique to each person. Customers would then choose a design from a range of possible options and then experiment with different color combinations. Once they had made their choices, the machine would knit the sweater in situ, and then the sweater is finished by hand, washed and dried before being collected by the customer.
This new venture is part of a plan to drive up the company’s operating margins to levels on par with rival Nike by 2020. The group is experimenting with strategies to cut short the delivery times of new designs down to 12 to 18 months.
It is a strategy which has worked in the sneaker industry, but now the “Knit for You” campaign aims to add individuality into the mix, aspect often lost in ready-made products.
But speed still lies at the heart of Adidas’s game plan. The sportswear company is aiming for 50 percent of its products to be made in a faster time frame by 2020 – double the rate it produced products in 2016 – which they expect will allow them to boost the products they sell at full price by 70 percent.
And they aren’t the only ones who are banking on speed to top their competition – Japanese basic wear giant, Uniqlo, are also hoping pushing for higher production rates and supplying their stores faster will help it usurp the fast fashion crown from Inditex’s Zara, who reported US$25 billion worth of sales in 2016.
“We need to be fast,” Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai was quoted saying in an interview with Bloomberg. “We need to deliver products customers want quickly.”
Like Adidas, Uniqlo is trying to leverage technology to launch forward fast.
The company’s Ariake facility along Tokyo’s waterfront brings together marketing and design teams to streamline the operations, an outfit Uniqlo’s owner, Fast Retailing, wants to replicate in more locations. The hope is that much of the company’s operations can be slowly automated and artificial intelligence can be increasingly used to predict sales patterns.
The goal to ultimately unseat Zara might be a bit of a stretch for Fast Retailing who aims for US$26 billion by 2021, but Yanai believes Uniqlo’s focus on everyday clothing that keeps fashion forwardness and practicality in mind is a recipe for success.
Uniqlo’s no-frills approach to fashion requires less production time in general and the company could focus on upping the quality of the designs.
“Zara sells fashion rather than catering to customers’ needs,” Yanai said. “We will sell products that are rooted in people’s day-to-day lives, and we do so based on what we hear from customers.”
Fast Fashion margins are shrinking
Adidas and Uniqlo might be tapping into an industry that is already facing its twilight days.
Once the machine that drove the fashion industry, fast fashion is a term coined to describe clothes emulating catwalk trends that are quickly replicated for mass production, resulting in “micro seasons” and low wages for garment workers in some of the poorest countries in the world.
Fast fashion retailers such as Zara and H&M would churn out fresh pieces that would be rolled into stores on a weekly basis. Their rise crippled retailers that typically worked on a season-by-season basis, and relied heavily on brick-and-mortar stores to sell their clothes.
Fast fashion retailers harnessed the rise of e-commerce to peddle their wares online, spending less on advertising and relying on web analytics to chart consumer habits.
“If you are a fashion apparel retailer, you have to have a steady flow of newness,” Customer Growth Partners president Craig Johnson said. “You can’t just regurgitate what was hot last year.”
But that all seems to be changing.
Recently, Inditex said their profitability had shrunk to an eight-year low, while their rival H&M said their profits fell in March for the first time in four years.
The changing fortunes of the two companies have two implications: Firstly, consumer habits are changing. Large scale campaigns by activists and marketing efforts by retailers have resulted in greater awareness of the side effects of fast fashion – most notably highlighted by the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013.
The change in sales numbers indicates more and more people are spending a smaller chunk of their disposable income on clothing, and are instead diverting those resources to other areas, such as electronics or travel. LA Times reports less than four percent of every dollar is now spent on apparel compared to the eight percent that was spent in the mid-90s.
Secondly, apparel companies are now finding their margins under siege from rising production costs as the quality of living in once-poor manufacturing companies – such as Vietnam and India – and the cost of materials increase.
Fast fashion no longer appears to be the huge money-making machine it once was, and retailers are now turning to new strategies to captivate buyers.
Value Fashion on the Rise
The emergence of Adidas “Knit for You” campaign speaks to the broader question of the change fashion is experiencing; clothes tailored to the individual is beginning to matter more.
The sweater campaign’s focus on customization indicates exclusivity is far more important than the ability to buy the same shirt in six different colors for a few dollars.
“It is very individual. It is like knitting your own sweater,” Adidas customer Christina Sharif told Reuters, adding she ordered shorter arms on her electric blue sweater than the standard model.
Despite the speed it aims to achieve, Adidas and Uniqlo are recreating the meaning of “fast fashion” into one that leverages technology to improve efficiency rather than sacrifices resources and engages obsolescence.
Uniqlo has maintained its commitment to the culture of normcore everyday wear, but expanded its range to include limited edition art-as-fashion pieces.
It engaged top-line designers such as Christopher Lemaire, supermodel Ines de la Fressange and New York’s Museum of Modern Art to produce lines that gave its everyday wear a fashionable and enduring twist.
It is a sign the company understands the power of fashion as an identifier and is moving into what Lemaire calls “slow fast fashion” – affordable (though pricier than Uniqlo’s main line) and accessible, with a know-it-when-you-see-it specialness
“People have been realizing [fast fashion] no longer can go on the way it used to – overconsumerism and overproduction are a disaster,” Lemaire says.
“You just need a good pair of pants. If you find a good pair, you don’t have to change every six months.”
The company’s giant recycling facility in Germany receives hundreds of tons of old clothes a day. Can it find a way to turn those old clothes into new garments and make its business model sustainable?
Two hours south of Berlin, in the colorless fields of Wolfen, H&M works with a massive textile sorting and recycling facility, one that might prove to be the unlikely looking future and redeemer of fast fashion. Around 25 to 30 trucks a day drop off an average of 14 metric tons of unwanted remainders from Europe’s closets, gathered from recycling bins at H&M’s thousands of locations on the continent. In Wolfen, this detritus of seasons past is industriously sorted for reuse, resale, and recycling, a relatively new trinity for the mass-produced clothing industry.
With 4,200 stores around the world, H&M is the second-largest clothing retailer in the world (after Spain’s Inditex, which has 7,000). Its 2016 revenue is in the neighborhood of $20 billion. It takes a lot of $50 blazers and $10 T-shirts to get to that number, and the company tends to be the prime example of fast-fashion feeding unsustainable consumer habits and environmental damage. And while it clearly has no plans of stopping (the company’s growth target is to increase stores by 10 to 15% annually) it’s also investing heavily in fabric recycling innovations, in the hopes that it can continue to grow while creating a closed-loop system, where most (if not all) of the raw materials for its clothes come from fibers that were already used.
A main feature of this plan is a partnership with a solutions provider called I:CO, which oversees this 13-football-field sized plant, which was opened by their parent company, SOEX, in 1998. (SOEX is a German textile collection and recycling group; I:CO is one of their subsidiaries.) Since 2009, I:CO, which is short for I:Collect, has run the Wolfen plant and since 2013, when H&M began garment collecting, everything left in their European stores has been trucked here. I:CO manages H&M’s in-store cast-off collecting all over the world, and runs two similar facilities—in the U.S. and India—for making zero-waste use of clothes, shoes, and textiles that would otherwise likely end up in landfills.
“For us, the way forward is to create a closed loop for textiles where clothes that are no longer wanted can be turned into new ones, and we don’t see old textiles as waste, but rather a resource,” says Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s sustainable business expert. The company first began to explore aspects of sustainability with the introduction of some organic cotton back in 2005, but the notion of circular production within their supply chain has really taken off just over the past few years, beginning with the 2013 launch of their in-store garment collecting initiative (you can now leave old textiles at any H&M store in the world).
But keeping clothes out of landfills, while laudable, is more of a first step on the way to the main goal, which is changing the company’s supply chain to a so-called closed loop, thus making far more use of non-virgin fibers (as in, fibers that come from already-worn garments). The H&M Foundation is in the midst of a four-year partnership with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), and has committed $5.8 million to develop the technology to recycle blended textiles into fabrics fit for new clothing. Fibers like cotton-poly are currently un-recyclable into wearable new material, a major obstacle to scaling up the company’s fiber-to-fiber recycling operation and closing that part of the production loop.
I:CO doesn’t know the exact amount of cotton-poly it collects, but the amount of blended textiles it has been receiving has been on the rise, so finding a way to recycle these into fiber that can be used for new clothing is a problem that needs to be addressed. In 2015, the company joined forces with luxury group Kering to partner with Worn Again, a UK-based textile research firm. Worn Again is trying to address problems like the shortening of natural fibers, which occurs when fabric is re-spun. Right now, when clothes you buy are marked “recycled,” that’s only 20% true. The rest is virgin fiber, which has to be combined with the recycled stuff to make a wearable textile. This is the problem that the scientists at HKRITA are trying to solve.
Both in speaking to its executives and in its exhaustive, public annual sustainability reports, H&M remains committed to finding a way to make all kinds of fiber-to-fiber recycling a major part of their closed loop materials, even if there is no target date yet in sight. In the meantime, at least, the company has produced 1.3 million garments with closed loop material in 2015 (it’s one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton in the world) and H&M seems well aware that a future blended textile recycling capability is a key way to decouple their growth from new materials. “There’s resource scarcity on one hand, and we have huge waste on the other,” says Brännsten.
The multiple tons sorted in Wolfen on any given day are still minor compared to the 85% of discarded clothes that sent to landfills (the rest are donated), yet the operation requires seven hundred employees, most of whom work in the 24-hours-a-day business of sorting. I:CO says that salaries start above the German minimum wage, which is 8.50 euros an hour. They’re also offered health benefits on top of normal health insurance, like free physiotherapist visits in Wolfen, likely useful given that each person sifts through more than 6,000 pounds of clothing per eight-hour shift.
The sorting process is based on 350 different criteria which determine whether your old jeans will be re-sold, partly re-used (zippers are handy that way), or fully recycled. Nothing that is fit for reuse, Brännsten stressed, would be recycled. Reuse extends an item’s lifespan, thereby lengthening the time it takes to go around H&M’s circular production loop.
But everything in Wolfen is used, in one way or another. The most worn-out cotton items head to a shredder, where they are gradually broken down and repackaged into inviting bales of fluff, and become wipes and cleaning cloths. The absurd amount of dust produced by the sorting, shredding, and baling is sucked up into brickettes and sold to the paper industry. The reusable clothes—and about 60% of what ends up in Wolfen is still wearable—are sorted by type, fabric, color and quality, packed in 130 to 175 pound bales, and shipped to any of 90 countries (predominantly in Eastern Europe and Africa) for re-sale in used clothing stores.
Customers who drop off clothes receive incentives, in the form of discounts or vouchers per bag of clothing. The idea is to make it as compelling as possible to get rid of clothing that would otherwise be trashed, and the incentives vary by H&M brand and home country regulations. In the U.S., a bag with at least three items (from any brand, and this can include stuff like old sheets) nets you a 15% discount coupon at H&M, while the same bag at the more upscale & Other Stories is rewarded with 10% off. Meanwhile, the proceeds from used clothing re-sale do not feed the company’s bottom line, but are donated to local charities and the H&M Foundation, which splits the funds between social and recycling projects, including the HKRITA partnership.
At the stores themselves, the Conscious Exclusive collection gives organic and partially-recycled clothing a fancier vibe, while the affordable Conscious line might be in your closet already. Close the Loop, an understated recycled denim and knit line for men and women debuted earlier this fall, and is made with 20% post-consumer cotton and wool from I:CO’s India plant. The company uses about 20% sustainable materials overall—using organic cottons, linens, and leathers, recycled polyamides and polyesters, and now, recycled cotton and wool.
So far, the company has collected about 34,000 tons of waste, or the weight of 178 million t-shirts, according to Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability. Of course, the equivalent of 178 million t-shirts over three years sounds less impressive next to the 550 to 600 million garments the company produces annually (this is based on outside estimates; H&M does not release production numbers). Its sheer size means “we will get criticized,” Brännsten says, throughout their ongoing move toward fuller sustainability.
And certainly, the criticism the company receives for its unsustainable production pales in comparison to its issues with garment production and worker protections. While H&M has publicly committed to fair living wages and working hours for its garment workers, human rights activists on the ground tell a different story. The Clean Clothes Campaign reported last spring that Bangladesh factories who work with H&M were behind schedule on badly-needed improvements (like fire doors) and vendors in Cambodia and India were coercing pregnant employees to get abortions, lest they instead be fired. Any advances the company makes in terms of recycling science certainly must be balanced with a continued push toward worker rights and worker safety, or the quest for sustainability in its supply chain will be meaningless.
Ultimately, the company “need[s] to ask I:CO, instead of the cotton field,” for new material, says Brännsten, noting that one effect of the company’s size is the potential of its influence over supply chains. In Wolfen, the U.S., and the India, already zero-waste facilities, the goal is to move away from down-cycling (the paper brickettes, wipes, cleaning cloths), maximize fiber-to-fiber recycling, and source all cotton sustainably by 2020. Developing cotton-poly recycling will likely speed up if and when H&M’s competitors get on board, too, Brännsten conceded. “It will not be called ‘recycled’ in the future,” she says, “because that’s the polyester that you get.” Walking through Wolfen, under hundreds of suspended sacks of discarded clothing, it’s believable that they are on their way. Now, for its efforts to outstrip the criticism of its business, what it needs most is a hard and fast timeline for that circular future.