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Ethical fashion - Looking at H&M's initiatives

H&M’s Catarina Midby explains how its sustainable initiatives aim to end the culture of throwaway fashion sustainability of its fabrics and new collections.

H&M might be one of the largest clothing retailers in the world, but the Swedish fast-fashion giant doesn’t view itself as a throwaway fix - instead it takes its ethical credentials seriously.

In fact H&M, which has been working on ethical initiatives since the early 1990s, has now set itself the goal that by 2020, 100% of the cotton it uses will be from sustainable sources.

“Sustainably sourced fabrics have been a big part of H&M’s drive,” explains Catarina Midby, head of fashion and sustainability. In order to meet its target the retailer will use fabrics from the Better Cotton Initiative - a scheme promoting good cotton-growing practices that reduce water and chemical use and protect working conditions and biodiversity - along with organic and recycled cotton.

With its two decades of investment in producing eco-friendly fabrics, over the past five years H&M has developed methods to make recycled polyester and has created its own crêpes, silks, organzas and chiffons.

“These take a little bit more effort but we have worked a lot on this,” says Midby. “Not least on our Conscious Exclusive collection [H&M’s premium line of its Conscious sustainable range], where we have worked even harder trying to make really nice fashion fabrics to make Conscious products attractive to our customers.”

She adds: “If we can make fashion at a high level out of these materials, that is the way to change things. We can also lead the way for other people because we are a big company and have people working full-time on sourcing new fabrics, and maybe smaller companies don’t have the power to do this. If we develop these fabrics then they will be available for everyone and it will make the industry healthier.”

H&M launched its Conscious collection in 2007. For spring 13, it extended the range to encompass red carpet-inspired Conscious Exclusive, which debuted for spring 13 and retails from £7.99 for T-shirts up to £39.99 for dresses. Due to H&M’s continued investment in developing fabrics the collections have expanded, and for spring 14 the Conscious Exclusive range will feature organic silk and leather for the first time.

In addition, H&M has also been supporting charity WaterAid since 2002 and each summer sells an exclusive swimwear collection from which 25% of the proceeds are donated to WaterAid. For Christmas it is donating 5% of gift card purchases to the WaterAid campaign to buy clean water for families in Bangladesh.

The country has been at the forefront of many people’s thoughts this year after factory collapses and fires. H&M, which purchases clothes from suppliers in Bangladesh, signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at preventing future disasters, although it did not use any of the factories involved in this year’s tragedies. “We do a lot of work in Bangladesh,” says Midby. “We are talking to its government to try to raise the minimum wage, have phone lines for women to educate them on their rights and also have education for women to help them learn how to become seamstresses.”

The retailer manufactures across the world in countries including India, Turkey and Poland.

Another strand of its sustainable strategy involves H&M paying incredibly close attention to the life cycle of a garment. It discovered that 36% of its garments’ total impact on the world’s climate is down to how the product is washed, ironed and dried.

To try to reduce this, H&M has spent the past three years working with Swiss care label business Ginetex to create a ‘clevercare’ symbol for all of its garment labels to encourage consumers to care for the environment when washing their clothes.

“We’ve also thought about the end of the life for the garment and have teamed up with I:Co, the company which does our garment collecting,” says Midby. In H&M stores there is a box for customers to drop off old clothes in return for a £5 voucher.

“We use 97% of what we collect; we send them to secondhand and charity shops but also produce house insulation, create rags, recycle and make new clothes and fabrics,” she says.

In March, H&M will launch a denim range called Close the Loop (with retail prices starting at £19.99), made from the garments it has collected. Midby says: “This is the way I can see it going, turning clothes into something you can use rather than just throwing them away.”

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