Breaking the addiction to fast fashion is everybody's responsibility

A past campaign for H&M's conscious collection.

A past campaign for H&M's conscious collection.

Visit H&M’s showroom in Sydney and you’ll find dozens of racks loaded with art-inspired prints, kimono tops and floor-grazing gowns that are pleated, tiered and bejewelled. Among the reflective fabrics and brocade coats, there’s an eye-popping, harlequin-style shift constructed out of leftovers from H&M’s 2011 collection with Lanvin.

Take the garments in your fingers and you’ll be surprised to learn that the majority are made from bamboo, organic cotton and recycled polyester. Expertly constructed and delightfully on-trend, every single item carries the ‘Conscious Collection’ tag, demonstrating just how far sustainable fashion has come from its scratchy hemp-thread roots.

H&M's Catarina Midby.

H&M's Catarina Midby. Photo: Getty

My tour guide for the day is Catarina Midby. As head of global sustainability at H&M, her job revolves around a single question: how can we make fast fashion more sustainable? Over the past decade, Midby has worked to weave responsibility into every stage of the garment’s lifecycle – from the cotton fields to manufacturing to when it eventually reaches the buyer’s hands. Her research points to two major problem areas in terms of environmental impact – fabric production and user care.


The second-biggest retailer in the world, H&M flogs over 550 million items per year. This requires an incredible amount of oil, land and water – you don’t need to be a textile scientist to do the maths. On average, it takes around 2,700 litres to produce your standard t-shirt and 8,500 litres to create enough cotton for a pair of jeans.

How then can retailers continue to produce such quantities without significantly depleting the earth’s resources?

“We’re looking into alternative fabrics, recycling old textiles and making them into new ones,” says Midby. So far, H&M have developed two environmentally friendly alternatives to cotton and viscose – Monocel and Tencel – using close-loop production processes. And though these fabrics cost more, it’s not reflected in the price tag.

“We pay more for organic food, but we don’t want sustainable fashion to be like that. We want to make it democratic,” says Midby.

The Swedish company has banded together with Walmart, The Gap and other bigwig retailers to form the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which educates farmers on growing cotton in a ‘smarter’ way that saves up to 70 per cent of chemicals and 40 per cent of water.

Last year, H&M rolled out a recycling program called ‘Garment Collecting’ and will be opening garment-sorting facilities in Australia before the end of the year. A far cry indeed from the company who in 2010 was blasted for shredding and tossing unsold threads into trash bags behind their stores.

With 39 per cent of environmental impact occurring during the “user phase” of a garment, H&M have also introduced ‘Clever Care’ labels to educate consumers on how to better look after their clothes. No tumble drying. No dry cleaning. 

Sustainability is a bit of a megatrend right now and leading the charge are several of the world’s largest apparel companies. In the last two years alone, Topshop has released two ‘upcycled’ collections with Reclaim To Wear, a label that aims to eliminate waste created by the textile industry, while Zara has committed itself to making its stores eco-efficient and axing chemical nasties from its supply chains by 2020.

These companies have certainly gone beyond the odd ethical gesture, yet there remains room for improvement. It’s simply not enough to attach a tag to the inner lining and call it a day. As we make our way around the showroom, Midby pulls out a pleated and dyed leather mini skirt. The skirt is made from organic materials produced in Sweden, then constructed in China, before being flown to H&M’s 3,100 stores across 54 countries. How can a company so dedicated to reducing their garment footprint justify that amount of air miles?

And these days, being environmentally sustainable isn’t enough – social responsibility is also key. The nature of fast fashion, in a sense, encourages consumer detachment from issues of sustainability and fair labour conditions.

As it stands, H&M employs over 850,000 workers in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and India, where poor factory conditions prevail and minimum wage continues to hover around $66 per month amid soaring inflation. The company have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord together with Inditex, Topshop and Primark, and have vowed to introduce a ‘fair living wage’ to every worker by 2018, but are still in the process of figuring out exactly how much this is to be.

Wouldn’t it be better to create less demand for fashion, rather than more demand for sustainable fashion? At the end of the day, H&M is a company chasing profits – yet they’re taking steps in the right direction. As the world’s population continues to grow and more of us demand to know where our clothes are coming from, it’s simply smart business to pay attention to these things.

As activist filmmaker Leah Borromeo observes, “A clever business will start their sustainability incorporation now. A moral business will also ensure they don’t act like vultures and seek to monopolise good ideas and open source methods instead.”

This is certainly the case for H&M, who have made it their goal to develop sustainable fabrics so that they’re available for smaller companies to use, too. When a company this big finds solutions that fit, the whole industry benefits.