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M.I.A. for H&M Recycle Week

H&M’s sustainability managers talk fast fashion and ethics

‘We don’t really see ourselves as a fast fashion company’ – the retail giant’s reps discuss responsible consumption and surface-level sustainability

Last month, H&M held Recycle Week, an initiative designed to ‘close the loop’ with consumers by encouraging them to return old clothes to stores for vouchers – with the items collected being recycled into new garments. Fronted by M.I.A., who penned a song and released a video, the campaign drew a huge amount of attention. However, not all of it was good – with accusations from the likes of Greenpeace that the initiative was a marketing effort rather than aimed at inspiring real change. The Guardian  claimed that it would take the company 12 years to recycle 1000 tonnes of clothing waste – roughly the same amount it produces in 48 hours.

For a company as large as H&M, and with a chequered record of reaching safety standards for overseas factories, even well-intentioned efforts at corporate responsibility are left open to criticism – despite arguments (including from M.I.A.) that raising awareness is better than doing nothing at all. On Thursday, H&M’s Anna Gedda and Catarina Midby (Head of Sustainability and Sustainability Manager for the UK and Ireland, respectively) were in Copenhagen for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s largest event on sustainability in fashion. They sat down to discuss throwaway consumer culture and how they say H&M is actually slowing down the industry. 

Why does H&M feel this is an important event to be involved in and sponsor?

Catarina Midby: We just sponsored the design challenge, but we support the event because it’s the only sustainability event of its kind really focusing on fashion.

Anna Gedda: I think what it managed to do is get the right people talking about the right topics. I think that even though we’re a big company and we do a lot, we still come from here with a lot of inspiration and things that we want to bring back to our work as well, so I think it’s been a great event. 

Do you think fast fashion and sustainability are mutually exclusive or can they coexist?

Anna Gedda: I think they can definitely coexist. We don’t really see ourselves as a fast fashion company, but we see ourselves as a company that can provide a lot of great fashion at affordable prices that is also sustainable, so that no matter what your income is or where you live, you should have access to really great, sustainable fashion. 

Catarina Midby: And we have also really driven the issue of personal style rather than fast changing trends for over ten years now, so I would say that has contributed to slowing down fashion that way.

“I don’t think most people can afford to throw away their garments from H&M. For most of our customers, they make an investment into something that they like to wear and keep and cherish for a long time” – Catarina Midby, H&M Sustainability Manager UK & Ireland

How so?

Catarina Midby: When you look at the 90s for example, and also the beginning of this century, there was a lot of focus on fast-changing trends. You would be in or out from one season to another, whereas now it’s more about updating your own personal style, which we've also been promoting and working on with our design team. That, of course, has longevity in a totally different way.

So more about building a wardrobe?

Catarina Midby: Building a wardrobe and also building with quality. We're working very hard on quality.

Do you want to see an end to a throwaway fashion culture? (Recent research showed that Brits had £4.6bn of unworn clothes in their wardrobes)

Catarina Midby: Definitely. Our customers are not about throwaway fashion. I don’t think most people can afford to throw away their garments from H&M. I mean, for most of our customers, they make an investment into something that they like to wear and keep and cherish for a long time.

How often do your stores get new products?

Catarina Midby: The thing is, whereas other brands might release the whole collection in one go, we have lots of different concepts in each department – we cater for everyone. So we will deliver those different slots in the same collection for Spring for instance at different times during the month, just to renew the shop, and also we wouldn’t have space for all of them at the same time. So it's not really about throwing out new fashion at all times, it’s just that we divide the releases throughout the season.

There’s been talk that the industry will need to rethink its whole business structure to truly be sustainable, is that something you agree with?

Anna Gedda: Absolutely! I think that’s very much at the core of our sustainability work and we actually just now set a new vision to become 100% circular – so only using recycled and sustainably sourced materials. We definitely agree with that and we think if we want to exist in the next 30 or 50 years, we need to make sure we use resources responsibly and meet the consumer’s needs that are only increasing. For us, we can’t do more than agree with that notion. 

How will you set about doing that? 

Anna Gedda: We’ve actually been working towards closing the loop in fashion for quite some time. We have a garment collection scheme – you know you can go in each store and hand in your clothes. We have also made closed loop products for the past couple of years and we also have the H&M Foundation which set up one of the world’s largest innovation challenges for closing the loop for fashion. So we’re doing a lot of things in this area to make sure that not only H&M, but the industry as a whole can move in that direction. 

How do you deal with that the allegations that your sustainability efforts are just surface level? 

Catarina Midby: It’s hard, it’s probably depending on our size, but I don’t think a lot of people do see us as the bad guy. Consumers are increasingly interested in knowing about our sustainability work, and they also are interested in changing behaviour, by recycling their clothes for instance or caring for their clothes in a better way. They can cut down their footprint considerably just by washing and ironing differently so I think it’s a changing scenario.