Fashion has a sustainability problem. Or, to be more accurate, I think that the opposite is more true: Sustainability has a fashion problem. For example, in 2017, 150,800 tonnes of textile and leather waste was generated in Singapore, of which only six percent was recycled. It is heartening then, that sustainability in fashion is something that Swedish fashion retail giant H&M is trying to rectify. With the ambitious aim of becoming climate positive by 2040, the company is innovating breakthroughs in fabric and technology, which are showcased annually in their Conscious Exclusive line. This year, we saw the introduction of two new materials—ECONYL and recycled silver—in their 2018 collection, but the brand still recognises that it has a long way to go. We head to the brand’s Shanghai event to speak to Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s Acting Environmental Sustainability Manager, to learn more about the ways that the brand is sparking change in the sustainable fashion sector.
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Hi Cecilia, two new materials that were launched with this year’s exclusive collection, what is the process that led to their introduction?
We are constantly on the lookout for new sustainable materials to use, because we have a goal to only use sustainable or recycled material by 2030. This year, we were thinking a lot about how can we make our accessories and jewellery sustainable. We have used recycled plastic in the past, but we wanted to try out metal as well, but this is the first time that we used recycled silver, or even silver, actually, in our products. For ECONYL, we also hadn’t tried [recycling] polymer nylon before, as a sustainable alternatives. But I think we want to try out something new every year as well.
When it comes to the ECONYL fabric, I know its very complicated, but can you tell us a little bit more about the fabric-making process?
Yes. The difference from making normal nylon fabric is basically that the raw material is not oil. In this case, it is old, used fish nets or carpets or waste from production. We take this, and make a new nylon fibre out of it, and then we spin it into yarn, then fabric, before it gets cut and sewn by our supply chains. It’s not that much different in the process compared to normal nylon fabric—just that the raw material is different.
Fashion is facing its own turning point in terms of sustainability right now. So what are you more excited to see of in the industry in the coming years?
I’m working in environment and sustainability at H&M, and that is my area of expertise, and I believe in our circularity work. I think the circularity journey we’re taking is super exciting, but also challenging at the same time. We have set this ambitious mission of 100 percent circularity, so we are really looking into all the different areas of our work: how we design; which materials we choose; which protection processes we use; and finally different ways of expanding the lifespan of products in different ways. I think we have a lot of possibilities.I think it’s exciting that we are at the very beginning of this movement, and that the industry is at the very beginning of this journey.
What are some of your biggest challenges when it comes to working with these sustainable fabrics?
I think innovation needs to happen in a lot of different fields. We need to use more recycled materials, and we need to be able to recycle more materials. This is an area where there is big potential: For example, we need alternatives to leather, and there are some very interesting bio-based alternatives out there that can be developed. Also, another area I think that there is room for innovation is climate positive materials. There is a process that can capture carbon or methane from the ground, and we can make a fibre out of it, to have a positive effect on the environment. So there is a lot of exciting innovation, but we want to accelerate it and make it happen more quickly.
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Sustainability is such a big word now for everyone. But what does it actually mean for H&M?
Our sustainability mission states we want to lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion, while being a fair and equal company. And it think it summarizes our sustainability strategy quite well. I think leading the change is a lot about taking leadership positions, and to use our size and scale to do good for us, but also for the industry.