Leather Made From Grapes And Recycled Plastic Textiles: H&M's Road To Sustainable Fashion

15/06/2017 15:58 | Updated 03 July 2017

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H&M made a bold statement at the beginning of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, declaring their aim to become fully circular (which means moving towards using only recyclable materials and renewable energy sources) by 2030. I spoke with Anna Gedda, their Head of Sustainability to find out how.

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Opening our discussion, I asked how H&M will become a fully circular company, with a particular emphasis on materials, which are a key challenge in terms of natural resource consumption and the challenges in recycling textiles containing multiple fibre types - cotton and elastane, for example. Here is Anna's response:

"We have looked into different parts of a circular system and identified areas to focus on. We use 20% recyclable or recycled materials. We need to develop our current materials so that we can achieve 100%, and also replace some of the currently used materials with new ones".

Anna then mentions the H&M Foundation's Global Change Award, which looks for early stage sustainable materials via their annual global competition. This competition is a key source of inspiration and initial ideas for the development of new materials for H&M. She outlines some of the recent winning entries, including a textile that acts as a solar panel, a leather made of grape waste, and previously a citrus waste textile. She explains that it is not only new materials being proposed, but new processes for manufacturing textiles are also being devised. The winners may develop materials for H&M, Anna explains, but the competition has an altruistic outlook, which I interpret as meaning it aims to unearth great ideas and developments for their own sake, aligned with the company's CSR mandate. Anna goes on to to say that whilst H&M aim to identify innovation and scale it, she concedes that many ideas that work in the lab are not scalable, and therefore not feasible for H&M's products.

Grape Leather Innovation

Anna segues into the H&M sustainable Conscious Exclusive collection, which is in store all year round and uses innovative recycled and organic materials, including Bionic yarn created from recycled ocean plastic. H&M uses this collection as a testing ground for sustainable fabrics with the aim of increasing demand for, and awareness of, sustainable products amongst consumers; ultimately bringing the prices down. This 'dipping the toe in' approach is a safe way for H&M to experiment with introducing new technology and textiles into their supply chain without significantly impacting their bottom line, and without taking big risks.

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H&M Conscious Exclusive collection 2017

Linking back to the Global Change Award, Anna explains that in addition to receiving prize money, the winners take part in a year long accelerator, which gives them access to the H&M supply chain to work in their suppliers' factories. During this time they are able to test their materials and innovations within a live supply chain context, revealing whether they have the potential to meet the demands of cutting, sewing and finishing in the garment making process - a useful learning experience for the competition winners.

Drilling down in to the materials innovation effort at H&M, I ask about the level of involvement of materials scientists in the development process and ask "who is driving materials innovation?" Anna explains that scientific input is key to achieving the 2030 circularity goal. The development of materials depends upon working with academics to understand planetary boundaries and new technologies for agriculture - cotton growing alternatives, for example. Academia, innovators, and suppliers - the actual producers - are key in driving materials innovation. She added that suppliers see that the fashion industry is changing and they want to create new materials to better meet sustainability demands.

My next question for Anna, aimed at digging into the issue of fair wages and exploitation in the garment industry, is: "What would you say to consumers who are concerned about the transparency, or a lack of transparency in manufacturing. How can consumers feel comfortable about H&M and about going into H&M and buying something off the shelf and knowing that nobody has been harmed in that process and that a fair wage has been paid, especially as your prices are so competitive. What would you say to the consumer who is concerned about that?"

Anna's response was as follows: "I would say that they can be confident going into an H&M store and buy things that they love, I mean, we really have high ambitions and we have a long term perspective and want to be part of this industry not just for the next three years, but the next thirty years - we are doing what we can to 'future-proof' the company, as well as the industry." In an age when transparency is increasingly important, H&M have engaged with the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) and are using the Higg Index, which they hope will go a long way to achieving transparency. Anna sees third party verification as an essential part in increasing transparency. Anna mentions the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report (summarised here) which uses the Higg Index, an open source supply chain and transparency assessment tool, stating that she believes this demonstrates how third party verification (from SAC) can lend credibility to the fashion industry's sustainability efforts.

Wrapping up the interview, I ask Anna what she considers to be the most exciting and game changing technology in the industry's efforts to become sustainable. "Finding ways to recycle from textile to textile - today you are not able to do this in a scalable and efficient way, because you don't have the technology." The aim is to be able to place any garment/textile in a solvent, recover the fibres and use them to make new textiles. "This will be a game changer for a circular system, and I think we will see such technologies within the next five years." She tells me she has seen technologies approaching this capability already. Textile recycling is already possible in this manner, but there are limitations as to the fibres that can be recovered, and some blended textiles (woven cotton and elastane, for example) can not be fully recycled using current technology.

Content Thread for textile recycling

In closing, Anna makes a key point in terms of this recyclability versus design philosophy at H&M - designers being restricted to using one type of fibre or material can significantly restrict their creativity and, ultimately, the aesthetics of the garment. She suggests that single fibre designs may not satisfy customer demand for interesting products, so full recyclability of all textile blends in order to achieve circularity without a compromise on design appears to be the answer.

For a comprehensive explanation of the H&M Sustainability initiatives see their website and The H&M Group Sustainability Report 2016

The Higg Index modules are downloadable on completion of this form

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Originally posted on Techstyler.Fashion

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