A look from H&M’s Conscious Collection. This printed gown is made from 64% organic linen with tulle petticoats made of recycled materials. Its hangtag will direct you toward clevercare.info which will advise you on how to care for the garment in a way that causes as little environmental harm as possible.
Last week, H&M released its 2014 sustainability report. Today, it celebrates the launch of its 4th annual Conscious Collection, a capsule collection of clothes made from recycled materials that’s also made for the red carpet. I always thought the phrase “sustainable fashion” was contradictory; those two terms are entirely at odds. The dictionary defines sustainable as, “the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” More specifically, “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting ecological balance.”
Well, fashion depends almost entirely upon natural resources, from water to cotton, and then there’s the problem with the word sustained: fashion gets off on change. Every six months it’s time to toss one thing and buy another. Even designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney (H&M says their collaboration with McCartney inspired them to move faster), both of whom manufacture luxury goods made to last for years and talk about sustainability, show new collections every few months. But once you accept the fact that fashion will never be entirely sustainable—and fashion will never go away—it becomes pretty easy to admire the brands that are seriously worried about the future. Anna Geddes, H&M’s Head of Sustainability, says, “When we think of where we want to be in the future, we don’t think of two to three years in the future, we think where do we want to be in 50 years time.” And that’s what makes it worth it for them to invest in sustainability. Geddes says she’s in it because H&M’s big enough to make a real difference, to call on the experts who can make an even bigger difference, and public enough to be held accountable. Now if only people would talk about their efforts toward sustainability as often as they talk about the brand’s designer collaborations. As Simon Collins, the former dean of Parsons in NYC who hosted the delivery of the report, put it, “The trouble with sustainability is that nice people care about it and nice people aren’t heard in the media.”
This bomber jacket from H&M’s Conscious Collection is made of Tencel, an eco-friendly fiber made from the cellulose of fast-growing trees. It’s a truly “closed loop” fabric that can be manufactured to look like nearly every other fabric, from silk to suede.
Here are just a few things that H&M is doing.
They’re addressing fair living wages.
Geddes says it “took a lot of guts” for the company to start addressing such a historically terrible issue. To make sure they did it right, they called in the experts, assembling a board of human rights experts, global trade experts, representatives from NGOs and supplier organizations to make sure they were going about it the right way. “Now we can actually see changing dialogue when it comes to fair living wages.”
Olivia Wilde’s already worn this kimono-style tuxedo jacket on the red carpet. It’s made of organic silk, which H&M developed last year as part of its Conscious Collection. The silk worms live in mulberry trees, which means no chemical pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs are used in the process.
Transparency is celebrated.
Because factory conditions are generally acknowledged to universally suck, brands don’t really run around talking about where their products are made. To make sure they’re held accountable for what they say they want to do, H&M released their entire list of suppliers. Want to see how they treat workers? You can pick a factory from the list and go.
Turning your old clothes into new ones.
H&M’s obsessed with a closed loop process—where old garments are turned into new and back again without using added natural resources. It’ll be a minute before they get there: Geddes says, “We need new innovation and techniques so we can scale.” But they’ve come pretty far. If you take a bag full of old clothes (from last year’s one-off party dress to a 10-year-old pair of socks) to any store, they’ll be recycled and turned into new fabric. Last year, H&M recycled 7.6 tons of fabric (that’s about 38 million t-shirts).
Jessica Chastain’s second Oscar dress, from H&M’s Conscious Collection, is covered with sequins made from recycled materials. Photo: Getty Images
Developing new fabrics from recycled materials.
They’re not just turning old cotton into new clothes, the brand is actually developing brand new fabrics. Last year, it was organic leather and silk (from silk worms in organic Mulberry trees), this year it’s embellishment. The sequins on Jessica Chastain’s Oscar dress, for example, are made from recycled shampoo bottles. In the new Conscious Collection, you’ll notice beading, fringe, and embellished trim, all of which is made from fabrics that didn’t exist last year.
Use 100% organic cotton by 2020.
H&M’s currently the largest user of organic cotton. Right now, that’s only 21.2% (is either organic, recycled, or grown under the Better Cotton Initiative). Considering how much cotton H&M uses, it’s not that much, but it’s a good start—which they’ll need if they want to get to 100% five years from now.