Recycling with H&M

There probably isn’t a single topic more important to the fashion industry right now than sustainability. A few years ago it was the exclusive reserve of a few small labels punting their superiority over big brands, but today the issue has been taken up by almost every company to some extent or another.

I’ve been impressed by what I read about H&M’s sustainability practices, and have recently started using their drop off bins for my own subversive purposes.

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But is it all just another marketing ploy? Or is the brand seriously concerned with the impact they’re having on the planet?  If nothing else H&M is making sure the topic of sustainability is front and center, rather than some obscure notion that only vegans talk about.

And because they’re making such a racket about it, they’re right in the cross-hairs of thousands of online blogs and news sites, making it a bit of a head-ache to really get to the bottom of what’s going on.

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The one thing I really like about H&Ms sustainability kick is the drop off box to recycle clothes. As a tailor I’m constantly creating waste as I cut out panels, and have wracked my brain for ways to make these off-cuts useful. I’ve used them as cushion stuffing, and also tied them into chord for knitting, but at the end of the day I just don’t have the time to really make any of these ideas useful.

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Although off-cuts aren’t really H&Ms target, it gives me a convenient place to drop off my scraps in the faith that they’ll be recycled rather than landing up in a landfill…Plus you get a discount on one item for your next purchase!! And I’m a sucker for discounts!!

H&M admits that the 15% discount is calculated to encourage a new purchase, while still protecting the company’s profit margins. So at the same time they’re encouraging us to keep buying more clothes that we don’t need…hmmm…If nothing else, H&M is at least shouldering the burden of keeping old clothing out of landfills. The company has so far collected more than 32 000 tons of textile waste. While it can’t recycle it all now, it is looking for ways to do so in the long-term.

So exactly what happens to these clothes (and tailor’s off-cuts) once they’ve been dropped off? According to the company, I:CO (short for I:Collect) collects the clothes and sorts them into what can be re-worn, reused, or recycled.

The re-wear category enters the second hand market, where the re-use batch gets cut up into things like cleaning cloths (not sure what else they could be turned into actually) and the rest gets shredded into fiber and worked into new clothes where possible.

Currently, H&M’s Conscious line incorporates up to 20% recycled fibers into a garment. I’ve worked on one of their conscious jeans recently, and can’s say I noticed any difference in the quality of the fabric at all.


But is H&M doing enough? They undeniably spend time and money on their sustainability programs, and have made very real strides to reduce their impact in a much more direct way than many other fast fashion brands. But that doesn’t get us away from the giant pile of clothing H&M produces every day. The Swedish retailer is one of the largest fashion brands in the world in terms of sales volume, turning over cheap clothing at break-neck speeds!

To grow the materials, dye and finish them with chemicals, manufacture, and ship all those clothes puts a tremendous strain on the environment and consumes vast resources. Given the limitations of current technology, it would likely take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1 000 tons of clothing waste. Meanwhile, it produces that same volume of new clothes in a matter of days.

With our current technology it is unfortunately not possible to close the loop and recycle all types of materials into new textile fibers, as material blends can be impossible to separate, while recycling cotton often reduces its quality.

In truth only around one percent of collected clothing can be used as recycled fibers but this is not told to the customers. Mechanical recycling of natural fibers is the best bet at present, but it’s costly and far from perfect. H&M themselves are putting resources into researching this issue, and hope to be the brand that introduces new technologies which would make 100% recycling of garments possible.

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Personally I was a bit underwhelmed by H&Ms local marketing strategy. If you’re not a fashion addict like myself I doubt their Conscious line would even have entered your consciousness. I’ve also never seen a single other item of anything in the recycle bins when I dropped mine off, and the cashiers tell me ‘people don’t know about it’. Which I can’t really wrap my head around since SA’s retailers are in dire straights and this is such a great way to get feet through the door.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve heard of H&Ms recycling program and if you’ve ever used it. I’ll be reviewing a shirt I bought from them soon, since nothing is worse for the planet than badly made clothes ;)

The Studio is at 625 Levinia Street, Garsfontein, and open every Thursday from 10am to 10pm. You can also subscribe to this blog by hitting the follow button, and join the monthly newsletter here for fashion scandal and awesome designs.


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