Sweden’s H&M going Full Cycle:

Making Fashion Sustainable and Sustainability Fashionable

01 Jun 2015, Rebecca Martin

Sweden’s H&M going Full Cycle:

Despite not using their Swedish heritage as part of their marketing profile, international high street chic clothes giant and SCC Patron H&M IS a very Swedish company. This is reflected not in the least by their very advanced sustainability work, today at the forefront of their company identity. The LINK was at the launch of the H&M Sustainability Report for 2014, the 13th of its kind published by the company, and had a chance to catch up with Sustainable Fashion Advisor, Catarina Midby.

“Ultimately, H&M is a family business. Our current CEO is the third generation of his family to hold this post. This makes a huge impact on how the company operates; how it doesn’t just focus on profitability but remembers its history and is also very conscious of the future,” Midby told The LINK.

Catarina Midby has been called a “green goddess” and it is obvious from hearing her speak about recycling and sustainability that this is a subject close to her heart. A former fashion editor at Elle Sweden and other fashion titles, she headed global fashion PR and then H&M’s seasonal trend group before starting up the Conscious initiative together with the designers in 2007. Since then she has been working with H&M to make “fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable”.

All photos provided by H&M

All Photos provided by H&M

The company first started working with sustainability in the early 90s and for the last fifteen years, H&M has been working actively with sustainable fabric, initially just with organic cotton but lately also branching out to test other materials. That the company invest a lot of time and resources in to their sustainability work is clear to see. It is seen by the company as an investment in the future.

“We are convinced that if companies don’t put efforts into sustainability today, it will be a catastrophe for the planet AND for the industry. With time, customers will also become more aware and start expecting this kind of commitment. If you don’t keep up with it, you will no longer be the obvious choice on the high street,“ says Midby.

The 2014 Sustainability report outlines the progress of over 80 important Conscious Actions and covers every stage in the lifecycle of an H&M garment or product. The company, firm believers in transparency, traces the way from the cotton field to the clothes recycling bins in H&M stores across the globe. There are also a number of goals for improving even further, as the company is dedicating to getting better each year.

The company vision is that all operations will be run economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. This, they hope, will mean that their business will help meet the needs of both present and future generations. To achieve this they have committed to seven principles: to provide fashion for conscious customers, to choose and reward responsible partners, to be ethical, to be climate smart, to reduce, reuse, recycle, to use natural resources responsibly, and to strengthen communities. These commitments all come with hundreds of Conscious Actions, there to ensure that the company can reach their goals.

It is, as Midby points out, clearly the right thing to do. And caring for the environment and future generations is characteristic for Sweden, a very Scandinavian country with Lutheran values, where most try to avoid wastefulness. However, she is also aware that H&M is not a company which that the general public necessarily associates with “Brand Sweden”.

“Today, we are such a large global company that the fact that we’re Swedish might not be self-evident. But when you scratch the surface or delve a little deeper into what we stand for, I think it is noticeable. Or perhaps it is that our values make people ask why we focus so much on things like this - and that’s when they find out about our heritage.”

On this particular Conscious Exclusive Collection, they were really able to experiment with materials and influences from across the globe. The line was created together with the design studio that develops the H&M Collaboration Collections and Studio Collection. This is partly because it takes a little longer to source the materials but also because the collection takes more resources to produce, as the sustainable materials are costly in the beginning. The inspiration was eclectic and the global identity of fashion today is reflected in the diverse influences visible in the line.

As a communications professional, Midby is very eager to make the public aware of the great ways they can contribute in their own way to the H&M sustainability vision. And the response they have had from customers so far has been positive. According to Midby, there is little difference between the reactions of Swedish customers to those in countries across the globe.

“This may not come as such a surprise, considering that ideas and information spreads so quickly over the internet today. The same ideas are visible globally. Peru or Norway, they have the same views on fashion and the cultural differences that existed pre-Internet is not as common today,” she says.

A recent initiative is the placing of recycle bins in the stores, where customers can leave unwanted garments and know that they will be used for recycling in exchange for a £5 H&M voucher. 

When you hand in a bag of garments (any clothes) they are picked up by the vans returning from delivering products to the shops in the morning and are taken to the stock room. There they are sorted by highly fashion trained sorting staff, to determine what
can be salvaged as vintage items, what could go be resold as second hand, what could be made into other textile products and what can be recycled into new textiles and then ultimately turned into H&M clothes.

"This way we are hoping to salvage more textiles by using the garments we collect, thus saving on resources and also engaging and inviting the customer to join in this initiative. Imagine how cool it will be to come into the shop and seeing is a row of jeans on display, made by the materials you have handed in,” Midby says.

The company is now focusing on making the UK and IE customers more aware of the recycling initiative, by educating the store employees and by staging a number of events over the course of the year in a bid to raise awareness - in a funny and informative way. The company also provide customers with environmentally friendly laundry advice through the Clever Care water lily symbol, increasing awareness of the difference that avoiding tumble drying and lowering the washing temperature from 60 to 30 degrees can make to the energy consumption. 

In the light of the recently published report, she is very proud of what the company has achieved in a year.

“I think we are moving forward very strongly. Of course we need to work even harder and get the word out even more - but I think it is also important to remember and celebrate how far we have come.”

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