H&M Launches First Global Clothing Collection Recycling Program

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.

[Image credit: Soapstar D’lux, Flickr Creative Commons]

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.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

7 responses

  1. Thanks for this interesting article! I saw that H&M plans to actually make new clothes out of collected textiles and thereby work to close the loop – would that not also gradually reduce the impact of any new purchases if they are more and more made of recycled materials? If the closed loop would fully work out, the company could produce all its clothes (even if masses) without extracting any virgin resources (with all the environmental impacts goind with it) – or am I thinking too simple here?

    1. H&M indeed wants to close the loop, but even if the company will manage to reduce the use of new materials to zero, the manufacturing process will still have environmental impacts like energy, water, use of chemicals and so on. In terms of carbon footprint the problem is that since most of it comes from consumer use as long as consumers will buy more clothes of H&M and won’t change their habits, the chances to reduce the carbon footprint are quite slim as scale almost always outweighs efficiency.

  2. Whoah….The article totally covers up the fact that the majority of H&M’s product is made from synthetic polyester based and/or cotton fiber fabrics. Polyester does not break down in landfills (it is a plastic made from petrochemicals i.e. oil) and has devastating long-term effects on the environment, and in large landfill use, including water table effects and damage now being seen in Africa as a result of the UK dumping 2 million tons of cheap fashion clothing a year to these poorer countries, where in fact 95 percent of the clothes are not reusable (the opposite of the number quoted by the author above who works for a business school). Cotton has extreme water consumption and waste effects. Both are bad for the environment and water resource table situation of the planet–which is going to be a major source of world conflict in the years ahead. Yet, most older clothing is made from natural fiber fabrics which if continued to be used, provide no negative effects to the environment. By encouraging consumers to bring in their old clothes (instead of continuing to wear them) and buying new H&M clothes in bigger and bigger quantities, H&M is not “closing the loop”… it is making the situation ever more worse. You cannot have it both ways. The never ending mass consumption and enormous global energy waste epitomized by H&M’s and other cheap and fast fashion companies’ “business model” is 100% contrary to the maxim’s that we must achieve if we are going to save our ability to survive on this planet: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Using marketing tricks to make H&M look more green to consumers and the media is not going to work at solving the real problems we all must face. Indeed, it will only make them worse. Instead of bringing in their old clothes to buy new H&M ones, consumers would be helping both their wallets and the future of their own sustainability on earth by simply wearing the clothes they already have and taking better care of them so they last even longer. H&M has nothing to do with the solution, and everything to do with the problem.

  3. It sounds like H&M are taking all the right steps to improve their impact on the environment. Considering they are very much a value brand consumers buy ‘disposable’ clothes from, this new initiative should work well. You could argue that people buying from them do not care about the environment enough to participate, so it will need to be highly publicised.

  4. Thank you for the interesting article. There are actually other brands that have launched global take-back initiatives (also in collaboration with I:CO), like the Danish denim brand, Jack & Jones, who launched a similar initiative in January in 17 countries worldwide.

    Even though both of these initiatives are great, I still have a problem with it, especially with H&M. The majority of H&M products are, in my mind and experience, of lower quality and not very long lasting, which goes against the whole idea of sustainability and resource conservation. Every time I visit their stores, I get the feeling that they don’t value their own clothes themselves… they are cheaply priced, lying around on the floors etc. Visiting flea markets or charity stores, these are also the garments that hang there the longest…showing the low value of these items on the second hand market. Of course, one could argue that if there is so little reuse and resell value these items should just be collected back and hopefully upcycled (or downcycled) into new products. However, I believe that true sustainability lies in producing longer lasting products that have a greater reuse value and companies should change their way of looking at the business and find new ways of earning money than just producing and selling a new low value item.

  5. I think that the fact that the idea of global garment waste will now even be on consumers’ radar is a huge step in the right direction. Most people probably haven’t even thought about the impact of throwing clothes away. Until I started my sustainable fashion blog heartsleevesblog.com a few years ago I certainly didn’t think about it, and I’ve always considered myself environmentally-conscious. I just loved H&M because the clothes were cheap and stylish, I didn’t realize that their cheap quality meant shorter lifespans which led to more consumption and more waste. I guess I should have realized, but I didn’t, and I don’t think most other consumers do either. That’s why something like this program could be really big: just to get people thinking about recycling and clothing in the same sentence. But this article does a great job of covering the potential shortcomings, and those will absolutely have to be addressed as well. Still, right on, I say!

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