Further down the aisle, recycling bins stood next to a collection of striped t-shirts and dresses.
H&M is well aware of the problem. The company’s Sustainability Engagement Manager Hendrik Alpen admitted the fast fashion industry is struggling to balance its climate commitment with its desire to meet consumer demands.
“It’s not exactly rocket science, if you look at how the global population will develop, by 2040, we might be 9 billion people. That is of course great from the perspective of having more potential customers,” Alpen told CNN Business. “But if we look at the planetary boundaries … the equation is not working out.”
How clothes are harming the planet
When you’re standing in a mall or shopping online and ready to click “buy,” it’s hard to fathom the global consequences of individual purchases. But consider the impact of a single cotton t-shirt or a pair of jeans as examples.
The process of making one cotton t-shirt emits about 5 kilograms of carbon dioxide — around the amount produced during a 12-mile car drive. It also uses 1,750 liters of water. That’s because cotton is a water-guzzling crop, Quantis told CNN Business.
It doesn’t end with the production. Washing clothes can also have a detrimental effect on the environment, especially because of synthetic materials like polyester that contain plastic fibers. After frequent washes, those fibers break down into microplastics, which can make their way to oceans and harm marine wildlife.
Denim manufacturer Levi Strauss is on a mission to change this.
The company uses stones instead of water to achieve the “worn-in” look. This technique has reduced the volume of water used in garment finishing by 96% since 2011, the company says.
Sustainability comes at a high price
H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2010. To qualify for a “Conscious” label, clothes must contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester, according to the H&M website.
The company was accused of “greenwashing” consumers by being vague about the collection’s sustainability credentials. Last summer, the Norwegian Consumer Authority sent a letter to H&M, accusing the company of misleading consumers with overly general sustainability claims associated with its Conscious Collection. The NCA told CNN Business that the information on H&M’s website did not specify the amount of recycled material used in each garment.
“We think this is information that the consumer should have available as the clothing is marketed as recycled,” said Elisabeth Lier Haugseth, NCA director general. “You should know if this means 2% of the clothing material or 50%.”
When asked about this, Alpen, the H&M sustainability manager, said the company would take the criticism and learn to “communicate that extra value” to consumers.
The Conscious Collection includes items like a vegan pink jacket made from Piñatex, a leather-like material made out of pineapple waste and recycled polyester rather than animal hides.
The catch: it originally cost $299.
That price tag, which stands out in a sea of otherwise super-cheap clothes, illustrates a hard truth; although H&M is making more of an effort to talk about climate change, it’s hard to scale up sustainable practices and still keep prices low.
But she also told CNN Business that it’s up to shoppers, too, t
o play their part – by purchasing fewer and longer-lasting goods.
“We consumers have a lot of power. I think we all know we don’t need 20 t-shirts,” she said. “Maybe it’s better to pay a little bit more and have two t-shirts.”
“I think we are much, much more aware,” she added. “People stop for five seconds and think: ‘if I buy this, it’s going to be a waste in six months time, if I buy this, it’s going to last longer, it [costs] more, but I am going to use it more’.”
Fast fashion companies produce billions of garments each year to provide their consumers with the latest trends. Critics, ranging from Greenpeace to the UK Parliament, say such mass production promotes the idea that clothes are disposable and encourages excessive waste.
The committee’s overarching message was straight forward: People need to rethink the way they dress by buying fewer but higher quality items that will last.
“Isn’t the real problem with the fast fashion industry that if you are selling stuff at £5 people aren’t going to treat it with any respect and at the end of its life it’s going to go in the bin?” asked Mary Creagh, the parliamentarian who chaired the committee.
The proposed tax was tiny, just one pence (or about 1 US cent) per item. The lawmakers wanted to use the revenue to stop clothes from going to a landfill.
And ultimately the government rejected the idea, saying it wanted to focus on eliminating single-use plastic first.
Most used clothing isn’t recycled
In a bid to play its part, H&M launched a recycling program in 2012, allowing customers to exchange unwanted clothes for discount vouchers.
The company aims to operate a 100% circular business model by 2030, which means ensuring that there is “no end of life [for materials] but creating a closed loop where everything is used as long and as often as possible and ultimately recycled,” Alpen said.
But some critics call this yet another example of greenwashing on the part of the company.
Orsola de Castro, a designer and a co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit global movement, said that the industry’s focus on circularity is a sign that the biggest companies are “hell-bent on continuing” with their current business model.
“These brands know very well that just throwing a couple of millions at some experimental circularity [project] was not going to solve the problem, but it was going to give them the opportunity to say ‘in the future, we can produce as much we want, you will be able to buy as much as you want, because ultimately, we will recycle everything’, but that is absolutely not true,” she said.
The future the companies talk about, she said, is so far away, it won’t make a difference any time soon. “We need to usher in a different behaviour by changing buying habits in the meantime, and that to me is slowing down,” she added.
The main challenge is a lack of recycling infrastructure for textiles. Current technology only allows less than 1% of clothing to be recycled into new apparel, Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular program, told CNN Business.
He said the fashion industry should design clothes with end of use in mind by integrating recyclable materials, such as lyocell, a fiber made from biodegradable wood pulp.
“The products are not designed to be turned into new [items] or refreshed in style…the materials that are used mean you cannot economically recycle clothes,” he added.
Most experts and fashion companies acknowledge the task ahead is huge and will require a multitude of solutions and technology that is not yet available.
“I don’t think there is a truly sustainable fashion business, but looking at the rest of the industry today, I can say very confidently that H&M is one of the most sustainable options out there,” Alpen said.