It seems like everyone is talking about sustainability- and H&M wants to join the conversation.
Hennes & Mauritz AB, or short: H&M, is one of the world’s leading fast- fashion companies. Its remarkable success story started in 1947 with one single store in Sweden. Now H&M owns 3924 shops on 6 continents, established 6 several, clearly defined brands and is participating in 61 markets. But not only H&M’s size and success has developed over time but also the consumer behaviour of its clients. Nowadays offering the latest fashion for the cheapest price possible is not enough anymore. Sustainability is the new trend- and H&M loves new trends. Thinking about the immense use of cotton or headlines about dangerous working conditions in their factories it is nearly unpossible to associate the fashion retailer with social and environmental responsibility. However H&M found an innovative way into sustainability combining the economic interest of its consumers with its own: A garment- recycling system. “As much as 95% of clothes thrown away could have been re-worn or recycled” states H&M on their website. Since they launched their garment collecting initiative in 2013 they have already gathered more than 32,000 tonnes of clothing and have re-used the garments in circa 20% of their new collection.
So how does it work?
The fast-fashion industry is reliable on a short-life cycle product due to fast moving trends and seasons. That does not only imply that retailers need to create demands more often but also that consumption and regular purchase of clothes is much higher than in other industries. H&M therefore introduced a new process whereby costumers can hand in their old garments, no matter which brand or condition, in local H&M stores and in return receive coupons for a new purchase.
The system functions as followed. H&M’s partner I:CO sorts the garments into 3 categories:
– Clothing that can be worn again and will be sold as second hand clothes
– Textiles that will be turned into other products
– Everything else that will be turned into textile fibres in order to be used for insulation.
With this innovative process H&M is creating a win-win situation for both parties. For the fashion retailer the recycling process builds on the company’s existing knowledge in textile production and therefore is competence enhancing and a component innovation, that just adds value to the product system without changing the whole process. Moreover, the company reduces, with its new process, improvement innovation cost of production and builds advantage into its product. Simultaneously the costumer gains more space in his or her overcrowded wardrobe and in addition receives a coupon for its next purchase (to re-fill the newly acquired space in the closet).
The fast-fashion giant on the sustainability track?
To be fair, the new, innovative garment collecting initiative is rather an incremental than a radical innovation. The idea of recycling, or converting waste materials into new objects, has already been a common practice for most of human history. Paper recycling, for example, was first recorded in Japan in 1031. Nowadays, systems like bottle deposits, or in other words container- deposit legislation, are very popular and even legally bound in many European countries. With ongoing and increasing sustainbility trends worldwide the recycling industry consequently becomes more respected as well.
Consumer adoption to H&M’s new eco-innovation, which is a product that avoids or reduces environmental harms, is therefore easy, as its funcionality and its interface have already been existing on the market- however H&M is the first fast fashion retailer that integrated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the model of recycling into its value chain. CSR, the balance between economic, social and environmental components, is no longer a competitive advantage for companies but rather developed to be a “must have” for businesses of all kind according to today’s consumer expectations. Thinking of this specific change in consumer behaviour, H&M really hit the mark with its garment collecting system, introducing an innovation in recycling processes in the fast-fashion industry at exactly the right time.
A future changing innovation or nothing but Greenwashing the brand?
While critics argue that the newly introduced process is a clear case of Greenwashing, which means portraying a false image of an organisation in order to look eco-friendly, H&M holds on to its belief in creating a “greener future”. Surely, H&M is not a pioneer in sustainable garment production or a trailblazer of Corporate Social Responsibility. Anyway, the fashion retailer set new standards by entering the market of recycling and should be seen as a role model for other fast-fashion retailer. Still, there is a long way to go- so we should also start becoming active and follow new sustainability trends exactly like we do with the latest fashion!