H&M aims for sustainable ‘fast-fashion’

High street fashion powerhouse H&M is ramping up its commitment to become a 'fast-fashion' eco leader with its latest report showing impressive reductions in water, energy and waste.

However, despite its achievements in 2011, H&M head of sustainability Helena Helmersson admits that there are challenges ahead for the brand – with debate centred around the question of whether ‘fast fashion’ can in fact ever be sustainable.

H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson agreed, saying that “to build a more sustainable fashion future, our industry needs to keep finding new ways of using resources as responsibly and efficiently as possible”.

Proving it can be done, H&M has today (April 12) released its Conscious Actions Sustainability Report 2011,  which demonstrates where progress has been made in its seven strategic commitments, which aim to improve the ethics and sustainability of its brand, as well as reduce the environmental impact in operations. It also ties in with the launch of two new Conscious Collections, which are produced more sustainably.

It also outlines how it is working to make products more sustainable for the consumer, with the whole lifecycle of the product carefully analysed, as well as closer supply chain engagement.

Mr Persson, said: “We want our customers to feel confident that everything they buy from H&M is designed, manufactured, and handled with consideration for people and environment. The level of social and environmental responsibility we take, places H&M’s sustainability work at the forefront of the fashion industry globally.”

Somewhat surprisingly, water reduction came up trumps in the report, with water use in denim production – a traditionally water-intensive process- tripling its water saving target of 100m litres, against a 2010 baseline of 50m litres, by saving a total of 300m litres. This follows on from a trial carried out in 2009 with suppliers in Bangladesh, China and Pakistan, to develop better water saving processes.

H&M is the largest user of organic cotton in the world – increasing its use by 20% in 2011. However, to ensure it does this sustainably it has signed up to the Better Cotton Initiative, which works to grow organic cotton which has less impact on the environment. This has seen H&M set a target of 100% organic or recycled cotton by 2020, nevertheless with this figure standing at just 7.62% in 2011 it could prove a challenging target to achieve.

It has also explored the use of other materials, with organically grown hemp rolled out in its fashion lines in 2011. The advantage of which is less water and no pesticides are required – no doubt contributing to the pesticides reduction of 3.5m kg in 2011.

Cia Sohlman, who is responsible for H&M’s sustainable materials strategy and development, said that hemp has the advantage of using less water than cotton or linen, doesn’t need pesticides or fertilisers – which can lead to water pollution – and can thrive in tougher climates.

He said: “Hemp can be very like both linen and cotton in fabric form, but it has many advantages from an environmental perspective. It doesn’t need to be sprayed with pesticides, it doesn’t need as much water and it grows quickly and almost anywhere.”

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing though for the retailer, after it recently featured in a Greenpeace report as one of several major clothing companies which release chemical residues in textiles into public waterways.

As a result, H&M is now working with the environmental group and brands Adidas, C&A, Li Ning, Nike and Puma, to develop a roadmap in a bid to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals, as well as achieve a zero discharge in its global textile production by 2020.

It has also pledged to ban the use of fluorocarbons – used to make clothing water resistant but is bio accumulative – by the end of 2012.

The move has been welcomed by Greenpeace toxic campaigner Marietta Harjono, who called on H&M to “use its size and influence to lead the entire fashion industry towards a toxic-free future, by working with other committed brands to bring about cross industry and systemic change.”

In terms of energy consumption, the report shows an 11% reduction in energy in 2011, against a 2007 baseline, and a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 5%.

It has now set an energy reduction target for its stores of 20% by 2020, which it says it is on track to meet, as well as increasing the use of renewable energy sources in its operations.

Waste reduction and reuse also features heavily in the report, with an ultimate goal of achieving zero waste to landfill set for 2020. As a result, it now uses 100% recycled bags, made from recycled materials, and it has increased the use of recycled polyester in its clothes.

H&M claims to be working “towards closing the loop” in extracting the natural resources from the manufacture of garments in order to become more resource-efficient. However, it admits that they still have “a long way to go to close the resource loop on a large scale”, but adds that “turning worn clothing into something usable again could be one way to achieve this”.

Additionally, on the ethical side of recycling and reuse H&M revealed that it donated more than 2.3m clothing items to various charities in 2011.

Carys Matthews

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