Last week, H&M announced it will launch a clothing collecting initiative worldwide. Starting in February 2013, customers at H&M, the world’s second biggest fashion chain after Spanish group Inditex, will be able to hand in used garments from any brand in H&M stores in all 48 markets. The items will then be handled by H&M’s partner, I:Collect, a global recycling company.
H&M is not the first one to come up with such an initiative – last April M&S launched its shwopping program, which has resulted, according to the company, in 2.2 million used and unwanted pieces of clothing being brought to M&S and Oxfam stores. Still, H&M does have one record to be proud of – it will become the first fashion company to launch a clothing collecting initiative worldwide (shwopping is available currently only in the UK).
This is the latest H&M effort to reduce the environmental impact of clothes throughout their lifecycle. The company explains that through this global initiative, H&M’s customers can save natural resources and contribute to reduced environmental impact by avoiding textile waste. To incentivize consumers to take part in the new program, in exchange they will receive a discount of 15 percent on one item of their choice.
Since it looks like clothing collection programs are becoming popular with fashion retailers, this might be the right time to ask how sustainable these programs actually are, especially if they also encourage consumers, directly or indirectly, to buy new items. Are these sorts of programs really advancing fashion retailers like H&M towards a more sustainable fashion future?
First, let’s look at this program from a carbon footprint perspective. According to the BSR report, Apparel Industry Life Cycle Carbon Mapping, the single most important factor determining a garment’s life cycle GHG emissions is the use phase, with laundering making the largest contribution to a garment’s life cycle GHG footprint.
What about the end life of garments? “LCAs demonstrate that GHG emissions related to garment disposal are very small, and generally result from small amounts of methane created during decomposition of natural fibers. Certain disposal options reduce GHG emissions, however. Incineration of natural fibers in a waste-to-energy plant may displace the use of fossil fuels, for example, while the recycling of used garments into new textiles reduces the need for new raw materials,” the report adds.
Nevertheless, the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the manufacturing phase by using recycled materials is substantial – a research conducted by SATCOL and others to “determine whether the recycling of clothes, shoes and textiles actually results in a net energy benefit” found that reusing polyester and cotton reduces the energy use in both cases by more than 97 percent compared to using virgin materials.
The next question is whether efficiency can outweigh scale – or in other words, what happens if consumers feel good about making a positive impact when they recycle clothes and decide to buy more clothes, especially if they get a discount coupon that makes this kind of purchase even more attractive?
Retailers can minimize this problem by not encouraging consumers to buy new items to replace the ones they recycle either directly (asking them not to do so) or indirectly (not providing coupons like H&M is doing now). Yet, most of the retailers aren’t Patagonia, and do want their customers to buy more items.
As H&M writes, its business concept is “to offer fashion and quality at the best price. Quality includes ensuring that products are manufactured in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.” The problem is, you can’t really be a fashion retailer and limit the discussion on sustainability to some parts of the value chain, just like you can’t really avoid discussing and taking responsibility for working conditions of your subcontractors’ employees or what chemicals they use and how they handle them.
In fairness, H&M makes an effort to address its value chain holistically as can be seen from its other sustainability efforts, including its seven sustainability commitments and other achievements like being the number one user of organic cotton worldwide, pledging to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals, or saving 13 million gallons of water in denim production. Now, H&M is helping consumers get rid of a very bad habit – every year tons of textiles are thrown out with domestic waste and end up in landfill and according to the company’s report, as much as 95 percent of these clothes could be used again.
Even so, getting rid of one problem can’t take away the need to take make a systematic change – after all, if H&M’s customers start buying more items, the environmental benefits of the collection program will decrease and decrease until eventually they might even vanish.
The solution should be to start looking at ways to take a more systematic approach, including encouraging consumers to make smart purchases and finding ways to integrate sharing economy ideas into the business model – wouldn’t it make more sense to arrange clothing swaps instead of just recycling them? Environmentally, of course it does, but how do you make money from it? Once H&M figures that out, it will truly be on the path to selling sustainable fashion.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons the New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.