â€œFast fashion can be both ethical and sustainable.â€ Can any fashion brandÂ make such a statement, or is it just a big old oxymoron? And can you haveÂ both sustainability and style? Aside from Stella McCartney, of course. But how many of us can afford a wool jacket for $1,145?
The closest affordable brand that meets those criteria may surprise you: the Swedish giantH&M.
Since 1997, H&Mâ€™s commitment to sustainability and moving the fast-fashion market to a more ethical platform has been encouraging. But exactly how sustainable and ethical can a fast-fashion company be â€” and can all that be possible for $35?
Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M, has mentioned many times in interviews that the only possible way to move the dial within the fast-fashion model is to close the loop, and for H&M, it focuses on eight steps to help make itsÂ circular approach effective: design, raw materials, fabric and yarn production, product manufacturing, transport, sales, and use. If all eightÂ of these steps are consciously handled from the start to the end of the use cycle, then there is a chance for major companies to make a direct impact environmentally and ethically.
A quick search online will get you plenty of facts, figures, and charts on which fashion companies are the worst when it comes to â€œconsciousâ€ clothing. But H&M claims it isÂ fully transparent with its sustainability program and with all its production. So we traced the origin of an H&M knitted sweater â€” namely,Â H&M Conscious Sweater With Shirt Collar ($35) â€” which isÂ made in a factory in ChinaÂ and is currently in stores.
At the Beginning â€” Design
Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative adviser and designer of special collections for H&M, tells Yahoo Style the aim is to create fashion without compromising on all the other qualities H&M customers expect from them. Choosing materials and fabrics that are less harmful to the environment â€” such as recycled polyester, recycled glass, recycled plastic, and organic hemp â€” is the first step in the sustainability loop.
The Raw Materials
In 2012, only 13 percent of all the cotton used in H&M garments were sustainable. By 2016, that figureÂ had grown to 43 percent. H&Mâ€™s goal is for all the cotton used in itsÂ clothing to be 100 percent sustainable by 2020. By 2030, the company aims to haveÂ 100 percent of all itsÂ clothingÂ comeÂ from recycled or other sustainably sourced materials. H&M does not have a direct relationship with mills, but working with organizations such as Natural Resources Defense Council has improved the companyâ€™s knowledge. Not taking responsibility forÂ second-tier suppliers is no longer an option for the company.
How Itâ€™s Made
According to H&M, 70 percent of all itsÂ goods are sourced from China. For some, that may raise the question of whether the clothingÂ was made in a sweatshop. Martha Lorentzon, H&Mâ€™s sustainability business expert, explains to Yahoo Style that H&M adheres toÂ the Higg Index, a set of codes and conducts from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to make sure the apparel and footwear industry is following correct procedures and acknowledgingÂ the environmental, social, and labor impacts of itsÂ products. Working closely with the Higg Index has meant factories that want a long relationship with H&M must follow these guidelines and Higgâ€™s scoring system, and they must take responsibility for theirÂ workers and working conditions.
H&Mâ€™s fair living-wage strategy includes collaboration projectsÂ with the U.N.â€™s International Labour Organization, nongovernment organizations, and trade unions. But working directly with owners of each factory to implement a fair wage programÂ is where the real impact can happen. H&Mâ€™s Fair Wage system is about creating a dialogue between workers and employees, and has a trade union in place to speak on behalf of the workers. Trainings are also given to factory workers on workplace cooperation, negotiation skills, and knowing the law. For some workers, this could mean the simplest of things, such as knowing what their job description is,Â what aÂ fair wage is for the work they do, and what benefits are they entitled to.
So far, 290 factories have enrolled in workplace dialogue and industrial relations programs. By 2018, H&Mâ€™s goal is to have an improved wage management system in place with itsÂ suppliers that make up 50 percent of itsÂ production.
Handled With Care
Fast fashion is oftenÂ viewedÂ as being of poor quality, and thereforeÂ theseÂ garments areÂ seen as having a short shelf life. But thatâ€™s not always the case. Each H&M garment is handled by more than 30 pairs of hands, from the initial design down to individual quality control before being steamed, labeled, bagged, and shipped to stores. As the customers, we also need to do our partÂ byÂ prolonging the lifespan of our clothingÂ and not getting rid ofÂ items simply because theyâ€™re no longer trendy.
The Final Stage
Once the product has been made, steamed, control-checked, and packed, a very small amount is shipped by air. More thanÂ 90 percent of H&Mâ€™s products are shipped by sea, which is the most carbon-efficient method of shipping; all major shipping lines are already converting to cleaner diesel fuels to reduce emissions.
Buy, Sell, and Recycle
If youâ€™ve worn your H&M sweater into the ground, donâ€™t toss it. InÂ 2013, H&M introduced aÂ Garment Collection initiativeÂ in which unwanted garments â€” whether or not theyâ€™reÂ H&M apparel â€” can be dropped off for recycling. Old garments are sorted and can be turned into other textile fibers or donated to other recycling projects. Considering thatÂ in the U.S., about 95 percent of clothing that is thrown away can be reworn or recycled, programs like this can make a big difference. Since H&Mâ€™s Garment CollectionÂ launch, 32,000 tons of clothingÂ have been collected and given a new life. In 2016 alone, H&M stores worldwide collected more thanÂ 15,888 tons of discarded clothing. Their aim is to reach 25,000 tons by 2020.