Sustainability and Purpose in Fast-Fashion H&M

Last month, the fast-fashion apparel company H&M released its 2016 sustainability report. The company set a commitment to use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials by 2030 and to become climate positive throughout its entire value chain by 2040.  

While they aren’t the first company to make such a commitment, they are an example of the growing trend toward “closed loop” or “cradle to cradle” product development in fashion. (Learn more about this approach from my podcast interview with Bridgett Luther of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.) 

This is big shift for fashion companies that have made their money by coming out with new designer lines each season. Lower priced apparel manufacturers have a reputation for making lower quality, “disposable” clothing not built to last. H&M, in particular, has been criticized for this.

Manufacturing retail apparel is inherently at odds with many sustainable practices. Many retailers have been tagged for poor working conditions and labor practices. Production often involves non-sustainable raw materials, the use of harmful chemicals, and generates dangerous byproducts and pollution. Even the plastic bags and packaging used for shipping new clothing adds to the waste generated.

Yet many companies are attacking this challenge and changing long-held practices. These companies are moving toward maximum usability, minimum adverse environmental impacts, minimum waste generation, and the most efficient use of water, energy and other resources throughout their lifecycles. They are challenging traditional methods and bringing new innovation to the process.

Nike recently announced new shoe packaging made from 100 percent post-consumer waste, including milk and orange juice containers and coffee lids. A recent spread in Good Housekeeping magazine showcased apparel made from recycled water bottles, from Columbia jackets (21 bottles) and Manduka leggings (15 bottles) to Adidas boat shoes (8 bottles). And earlier this year, Patagonia launched a take-back program to fix up and resell old Patagonia clothes.

And not just because it’s good for the planet. It’s good for business. Consumers are paying attention and making purchase decisions with their values in mind.  

Here are some of the more notable actions H&M is taking to operationalize their purpose, all of which are relevant for companies in any industry:

1. Find a partner

H&M is the first textile company to join Climate Savers, World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF) climate leadership program for business. This partnership is accelerating the pace of change to H&M’s business practices.  In fact, H&M’s new climate strategy was developed in collaboration with WWF. WWF is guiding them as they make strategic change to internal structures with specific long- and short-term goals -- to ensure implementation of responsible water use, energy efficiency measures, and renewable energy investments.

2. Material Sourcing  

The retailer is increasingly using sustainably sourced material, with a pledge to use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.  They are evaluating their suppliers through the an apparel and footwear industry self-assessment standard, called the Higg Index, for assessing environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain.

The data shows that they are making that transformation. In 2016, 26 percent of the company’s total materials were either recycled or sustainably sourced, according to their sustainability report.  For example, rather than using carbon-intensive cotton, H&M is turning to organic cotton, recycled cotton and Better Cotton (certified by the Better Cotton Initiative) – these sources represented 43 percent H&M’s cotton intake in 2015, up from 31.4 percent in the prior year.  H&M also describes itself as the second largest user of recycled polyester in the world, and it says it used recycled polyester “equivalent to more than 180 million PET bottles” last year. 

3. Experiment

H&M created its Conscious Exclusive line of red-carpet looks made from more sustainable materials. The collection is relatively small, allowing the company to experiment with materials and approaches. They’re using a polyester made of recycled shoreline waste to make dresses and a solid material made from compressed recycled denim to make earrings. The aim is to build demand for sustainable clothing, which will ensure that they maintain their accessible price points.

4. Invest for Innovation

H&M’s Global Change Award is an annual innovation challenge, looking for new ideas, products, and solutions that help make fashion circular – and protect our planet. The winners get access to a one year innovation accelerator, and a share of the €1 million annual grant.

Recent winners include the inventor of the “Polyester Digester,” a method of using microbes to recycle waste polyester, and inventors of Grape Leather, a method of using winemaking leftovers to create fully vegetal leather. The winners say the award helps them scale their business and realize their visions.

Through these moves, H&M appears to be serving as a showcase to other companies, within the textile sector and beyond, that focusing on more sustainable practices is both feasible and valuable for business.