Old candlesticks and sea-worn rope fishing nets may not instantly inspire thoughts of glamorous high fashion, but according to Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative advisor at H&M, they represent a new way forward for the industry.
“The way the materials feature in our Conscious Exclusive collection shows how the latest technology can be incorporated with time-honoured techniques for spectacular results.” Johansson says of the fast-fashion giant’s newest ‘eco-positive’ undertaking.
Inspired by the early 20th century Arts and Craft movement, the 2018 Conscious Exclusive collection features rich emeralds, dusky blues and neutral tones, showcasing the unusual recycled materials.
The Conscious Exclusive line was spawned several years ago when the company recognised growing social pressure to change their unsustainable practices. “Our size, scale and influence mean we have both a responsibility to do the right thing and an opportunity to create real lasting change.” acknowledges Anna Gedda, the head of sustainability.
Recycling-focused Conscious Exclusive was their solution. Now on their seventh collection, the line has garnered a sizeable following with celebs and eco-minded customers.
The move was met with such a success, in fact, that the company announced in December a brand new progressive range, lauded by designer Petra Smeds as ‘the way forward’ for fashion.
The big innovation? Activewear, made -wait for it- from recycled materials. And of course, we can’t forget H&M’s October sustainability initiative “Close The Loop”: cutting edge, state of the art denim looks… made from recycled materials.
To quote The Devil Wears Prada: groundbreaking.
It seems H&M have found a niche that ticks all the boxes in moving away from their damaging ‘ruthless fast-fashion mill’ image. But is this really the revolution they claim it to be? The prices in the ‘exquisite, premium’ Conscious line, as H&M’s website describes it, are drastically higher from the stores usual offerings — on average retailing around $200-$400AUD. Meanwhile, a run-of-the-mill, non-‘eco’ t-shirt will still only set you back little more than $5.
When we look past the novelty factor of clothes made from fishing nets, it begs the question: what is being done to address the very real and very unsustainable production practices that enable such appealing low prices?
H&M defends its use of developing countries for production, arguing the company is ‘supporting’ growth through ‘mutually prosperous partnerships’. Furthermore, H&M attests that “We only allow our products to be manufactured by suppliers and factories that commit to our values and sign our strict code of conduct”.
However, H&M concedes that suppliers have often broken their ‘strict code of conduct’ in the past. A Cambodian production factory rated ‘Gold’ standard by H&M revealed 8000 of their workers had collapsed of malnutrition since 2010. Most recently, the brand made news in February when an exposé alleged a major supplier to H&M used Chinese prisoners as labour to make packaging for the brand, paying them just $19USD a month. Meanwhile, the same amount could buy Aussie customers a nice H&M top.
Not only are at-risk workers losing out in this race for volume, but so is the planet. H&M proudly boasts it has been certified as the world’s No.1 user of organic cotton; a fact that distracts from the reality that H&M is one of the biggest consumers of cotton, period. Cotton crops, organic or not, require colossal amounts of water and energy in their production: it takes 20,000 litres to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt.
H&M’s intentions seem undeniably noble, taking measures toward production transparency and conscientiousness far beyond those of their fast-fashion competitors. However, the issue lies in mass fashion retailers’ driving motivation: ‘quantity, quantity, quantity’.
Whilst this remains the ethos of these brands, sustainability will never be achievable, and author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Lucy Siegle advises we take so-called “green or ethical collections” with a pinch of salt.
“The biggest of the fast fashion brands are keen to show us that they are not just cleaning up but leading the charge. But behind the scenes the business model remains intact, predicated on producing ever-increasing volumes at lower prices and faster speeds.” She says.
It may seem as though all hope is lost for a sustainable future for the industry as long as the appeal of trendy, cheap fashion reigns supreme. But Siegle has one solution for budget-conscious consumers who can’t afford the eco-friendly boutiques but still want to make a difference. “Buy fast fashion for slow reasons.” She implores; “Keep [it] in your wardrobe for as long as possible and commit to wearing until it’s fit for dusters”.
So next time you feel tempted by that $5 shirt destined to be thrown out in your next spring clean, or are drawn to that magic green sticker that makes you look great AND feel good, stop and think: what’s the real cost here?
Written by: Kate Nightingale