Thursday 27 August 2015

closed loop fast fashion

Yesterday two stories in the Guardian caught my eye about H&M that seem to convey the mixed feelings of the sustainable fashion community regarding the fast fashion retailer (giant!).

The first: Fashion chain H&M offers $1million recycling prize for reusable clothing

And the second: H&M's $1million recycling prize is clever but no solution to fast fashion

The prize is meant to help discover new technologies to more efficiently and effectively recycle fabrics. Fabric recycling is possible today, though there are quality concerns and mixed-material fabrics - like a cotton-poly blend, popular among fast fashion brands - cannot yet be recycled.

H&M in Melbourne's GPO

On the one hand, no one can accuse H&M of not thinking about the sustainability impacts of fashion. H&M have included a range of clothing made with sustainable fibres through their Conscious Collection for a number of years, they are the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world, and they collect worn clothing to be recycled and donate money to charity for each piece collected.

I finally found a piece of the Conscious Collection!
Not always so easy to locate in the shop.

And this week they did not just announce the competition to find new techniques to recycle clothing,  H&M also launched a line of denim containing recycled cotton.
Photo: H&M

As reported by The Guardian, H&M Chief Executive Karl-Johan Persson stated: “No company, fast-fashion or not, can continue exactly like today. The [prize’s] largest potential lies with finding new technology that means we can recycle the fibres with unchanged quality.”

But does 'closing the loop' on textile production detract from the bigger picture of fashion's sustainability concerns? The fast fashion business model is structured upon increased consumption, which leads to a number of environmental and social sustainability concerns beyond merely the fabric.

The Guardian's sustainable fashion expert, and author of To Die For: Is fashion wearing out the world?, Lucy Siegle says that while the award is clever and exciting, it ultimately focuses on just one concern of fast fashion - natural resources - while sidestepping other issues pertaining to labour rights and injustices in the supply chain. “Over consumption of natural resources is a root problem, but not the only one.”

And what of the constant churn of fashion in and out of H&M's doors? This brand is not slowing production, and revenues have doubled since 2006. Aside from the resources used in fabric production, there are significant energy, water and chemical requirements of producing and selling fashion. And the rising amount of textiles in our landfills has been directly linked to the rise of fast fashion brands like H&M. For example, in the UK, household textile waste grew by 400% in just four years from 2004-2008, by which time it was nearly a third of household waste*.

Beyond that, what about the overwhelming woozy feeling I get when I walk into an H&M, and its multiple floors of overflowing clothing racks? My gut instinct is typically to get out as fast as I can, even as my eyes wander toward that fabulous dress at a reasonable price**.

H&M are not solely responsible for this particular business model of fashion, of course. In fact, they open themselves up for criticism simply by making announcements such as these, but they are doing more than any other fast fashion label out there. And just as the two headlines suggest, there are mixed feelings by many in the sustainable fashion community about whether we should celebrate or criticise H&M's actions. The general consensus seems be:

"Yes, it's good news, but . . ."

My own opinion?  It definitely rests in that "but..." area.

I want the technology, I want greater awareness of sustainable fashion that can be delivered by the likes of H&M, but I also want to slow things down and bring back what I think is truly beautiful fashion. Clothing that's been made mindfully, carefully and designed to last in terms of both style and durability. I think it's exciting that we're on the way, and that we have the support of major brands like H&M, but we're not quite there yet, and we won't be until we slow the system to a more manageable pace.

What do you think? Does this make you want to shop at H&M to support their sustainability initiatives? Will it make sustainable fashion more widely available? Or should the focus be on slowing production and encouraging a different way of buying clothing?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

*Morgan, Louise R., and Grete Birtwistle. "An Investigation of Young Fashion Consumers' Disposal Habits." International Journal of Consumer Studies 33.2 (2009): 190-98.

** I have never made an H&M purchase, though I do keep my eye on the Conscious Collection just in case anything strikes my fancy. 

Thursday 13 August 2015

Sydney Ideas : Beauty without Harm

Last night I was thrilled to participate in a Sydney Ideas / Sydney Environment Institute event on fashion and sustainability titled 'Beauty without Harm'.

The Q&A Panel discussion

Over the past few years I've attended so many Sydney Ideas and SEI events, and it was an honour to be asked to participate as a speaker. I'm only midway through my doctoral studies, and not yet able to share any 'conclusions'. So instead I shared some of the general stats about fashion's impact on the environment, some of the advancements being made in sustainable fashion, and some trends I've documented in Australia's sustainable fashion movement.

It was a full house! Industry, academics and students were all present.

Kit Willow also spoke passionately about her commitment to the environment and the work she and her team have done to create the new label, KitX, with sustainable values underpinning the business. (as an aside, I just bought my first, of what is certain to be many, pieces from the KitX collection - excitement!) And Jaana Quaintance-James, David Jones' Ethical Sourcing Manager, shared the 5 year strategy that is guiding her work to develop ethical and sustainable supply chains at Australia's major retailer.

There were so many smart questions from the audience, ranging from queries about materials, to business practices, and whether we think government should play a role in improving the sustainability outcomes of fashion (a resounding YES from all three of us). And this was another of many moments when I felt absolutely thrilled to be pursuing my PhD studies here at the University of Sydney with the incredible support of my department (Gender & Cultural Studies) and the broader SEI network. I'm looking forward to continuing these great conversations.

Reminiscing about the Clean Cut show at MBFWA 2014

If these events sound like your cuppa tea, this event was the first of a 'Small Changes' series hosted by Sydney Ideas and SEI - the next events are covering environmental issues with dairy, husbandry and fracking - all hosted by the charming Dr Frances Flanagan. You'll be certain to find me in the audience.