H&M Is Changing the Sustainability Culture, 1 T-Shirt at a Time

“Fast fashion can be both ethical and sustainable.” Can any fashion brand make such a statement, or is it just a big old oxymoron? And can you have both sustainability and style? Aside from Stella McCartney, of course. But how many of us can afford a wool jacket for $1,145?

The closest affordable brand that meets those criteria may surprise you: the Swedish giant H&M.

Since 1997, H&M’s commitment to sustainability and moving the fast-fashion market to a more ethical platform has been encouraging. But exactly how sustainable and ethical can a fast-fashion company be — and can all that be possible for $35?

Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M, has mentioned many times in interviews that the only possible way to move the dial within the fast-fashion model is to close the loop, and for H&M, it focuses on eight steps to help make its circular approach effective: design, raw materials, fabric and yarn production, product manufacturing, transport, sales, and use. If all eight of these steps are consciously handled from the start to the end of the use cycle, then there is a chance for major companies to make a direct impact environmentally and ethically.

A quick search online will get you plenty of facts, figures, and charts on which fashion companies are the worst when it comes to “conscious” clothing. But H&M claims it is fully transparent with its sustainability program and with all its production. So we traced the origin of an H&M knitted sweater — namely, H&M Conscious Sweater With Shirt Collar ($35) — which is made in a factory in China and is currently in stores.

At the Beginning — Design

Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative adviser and designer of special collections for H&M, tells Yahoo Style the aim is to create fashion without compromising on all the other qualities H&M customers expect from them. Choosing materials and fabrics that are less harmful to the environment — such as recycled polyester, recycled glass, recycled plastic, and organic hemp — is the first step in the sustainability loop.

The Raw Materials

In 2012, only 13 percent of all the cotton used in H&M garments were sustainable. By 2016, that figure had grown to 43 percent. H&M’s goal is for all the cotton used in its clothing to be 100 percent sustainable by 2020. By 2030, the company aims to have 100 percent of all its clothing come from recycled or other sustainably sourced materials. H&M does not have a direct relationship with mills, but working with organizations such as Natural Resources Defense Council has improved the company’s knowledge. Not taking responsibility for second-tier suppliers is no longer an option for the company.

How It’s Made

According to H&M, 70 percent of all its goods are sourced from China. For some, that may raise the question of whether the clothing was made in a sweatshop. Martha Lorentzon, H&M’s sustainability business expert, explains to Yahoo Style that H&M adheres to the Higg Index, a set of codes and conducts from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to make sure the apparel and footwear industry is following correct procedures and acknowledging the environmental, social, and labor impacts of its products. Working closely with the Higg Index has meant factories that want a long relationship with H&M must follow these guidelines and Higg’s scoring system, and they must take responsibility for their workers and working conditions.

Fair Wages

H&M’s fair living-wage strategy includes collaboration projects with the U.N.’s International Labour Organization, nongovernment organizations, and trade unions. But working directly with owners of each factory to implement a fair wage program is where the real impact can happen. H&M’s Fair Wage system is about creating a dialogue between workers and employees, and has a trade union in place to speak on behalf of the workers. Trainings are also given to factory workers on workplace cooperation, negotiation skills, and knowing the law. For some workers, this could mean the simplest of things, such as knowing what their job description is, what a fair wage is for the work they do, and what benefits are they entitled to.

So far, 290 factories have enrolled in workplace dialogue and industrial relations programs. By 2018, H&M’s goal is to have an improved wage management system in place with its suppliers that make up 50 percent of its production.

Handled With Care

Fast fashion is often viewed as being of poor quality, and therefore these garments are seen as having a short shelf life. But that’s not always the case. Each H&M garment is handled by more than 30 pairs of hands, from the initial design down to individual quality control before being steamed, labeled, bagged, and shipped to stores. As the customers, we also need to do our part by prolonging the lifespan of our clothing and not getting rid of items simply because they’re no longer trendy.

The Final Stage

Once the product has been made, steamed, control-checked, and packed, a very small amount is shipped by air. More than 90 percent of H&M’s products are shipped by sea, which is the most carbon-efficient method of shipping; all major shipping lines are already converting to cleaner diesel fuels to reduce emissions.

Buy, Sell, and Recycle

If you’ve worn your H&M sweater into the ground, don’t toss it. In 2013, H&M introduced a Garment Collection initiative in which unwanted garments — whether or not they’re H&M apparel — can be dropped off for recycling. Old garments are sorted and can be turned into other textile fibers or donated to other recycling projects. Considering that in the U.S., about 95 percent of clothing that is thrown away can be reworn or recycled, programs like this can make a big difference. Since H&M’s Garment Collection launch, 32,000 tons of clothing have been collected and given a new life. In 2016 alone, H&M stores worldwide collected more than 15,888 tons of discarded clothing. Their aim is to reach 25,000 tons by 2020.

Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty:

H&M Unveils New Collection, Including a Dress Made of 89 Recycled Plastic Bottles 
6 Must-Have Pieces from Gabi Fresh and Nicolette Mason’s New Plus-Size Line, Premme
In an Age of Fast Fashion, Patagonia Is Going Slow 

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