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I stepped out of the elevator into a H&M’s NYC headquarters. To my left was a rainbow pile of discarded clothes reaching to the ceiling. I checked my coat, plucked a glass of wine from a tray, and headed into H&M’s showroom, which had been transformed into a low-lit gallery filled with avant garde upcycled garments, sustainable clothing with placards describing their merits (recycled glass beads, organic cotton, Tencel, recycled denim), and even a wedding dress set back into a dark box, lit by LED lights.

It was reminiscent of a fashion exhibition at the Met, and almost as well attended by the sustainable fashion crowd. I found myself talking with Jamie McGlinchey of Melissa Joy Manning, Michael Miller from K/ller Collection, and Rachel Baxter of Conscious Magazine.

We were there to look at and celebrate H&M’s latest Conscious Collection, plus H&M’s garment recycling initiative. Since 2013, customers have been able to bring in their old clothing from any brand, put it in a bin, and get a discount coupon to H&M. Proceeds from the recycling program are donated to charity partners. But the week of April 18th, they are embarking on an all-out push to collect 1,000 tons of unwanted clothing during their World Recycle Week, complete with a multi-cultural smörgåsbord of a music video by the badass musical artist M.I.A.

Olivia Wilde was at the party as well, having modeled in H&M’s Conscious Collections campaigns (which are so well publicized that they tend to sell out of their most popular styles within a few hours). But I wasn’t there to hobnob or extract selfies from celebrities. I ignored Wilde and went straight for a tall, handsome Swede: Henrik Lampa, H&M’s Development Sustainability Manager.

I wanted to get to the bottom of the big question about H&M: Is it an evil fast fashion corporation using greenwashing tactics to increase its revenue and avoid culpability? Or is it genuinely concerned about its role in environmental and labor tragedies, and trying its best to fix that?

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, H&M is the largest purchaser of organic cotton in the world. On the other hand, it is definitely a fast fashion company, whose success is correlated with its ability to get us to buy clothes that we don’t necessarily need at an ever-increasing pace. On the other hand, H&M has published its supplier factory list, and has committed to paying its workers a living wage. On yet another hand, a factory fire in February seemed to show that H&M’s safeguards and system don’t seem to be working. Finally, it is trying to keep clothing out of the landfill, but promoting it’s recycling week at the same time as Fashion Revolution Week, a move that has been heavily criticized as insensitive.

In short, H&M is a constant source of frustration for me. One minute I’m excited about their initiatives and going out on a limb to defend them, the next I’m shaking my head, feeling like that limb is broken. What am I supposed to think?

So when I was offered the chance to talk to the man in charge of these initiatives, I jumped on it, collecting questions from my friends in the Ethical Writers Coalition to prepare myself. Then I sat down with Lampa in a corner of the party and grilled him. He spoke slowly and carefully (English not being his first language) but intelligently. Here are his answers, edited for length and clarity.

Alden: What are H&M’s plans to expand the Conscious Collection – take the concepts you are using in this capsule collection and apply them broadly across H&M?

Lampa: The Conscious Collection is a way for us to innovate in sustainable fashion, in looking at new ways to expand material choices, and to mainstream as much as that as that as possible, as fast as possible. But it’s a matter of very short supply in some cases.

In what cases are we talking about?

For different recycled materials, the technology is not there. For recycled collections in store, now it’s only 20% because of limitations. When you recycle cotton mechanically [it degrades in quality.] There are limitations in recycled polyester as well. Just sheer global availability.

From what I’ve heard, Patagonia has the polyester manufacturer Teijin locked down for when it comes to polyester recycling.

Yes, Teijin is very small, and they haven’t been expanding at all in many years, unfortunately.

Are there other options for recycling polyester into new textiles?

There are some interesting innovations going on. We are trying to see where we can pitch in in terms of knowledge, finance, or connections. We want to see how we can support solutions along the different spaces of innovation. Should we have a role in investing in the company? Can we allocate research money? Our foundation was involved in a crowd-sourcing activity [to give away 1 million euros to developers of textile recycling technology]. It was really about closing the loop of textiles. We didn’t know if we would have hardly any applications at all, but it was thousands, like 2,700 from 112 countries. Of differing qualities, of course. Some of them were a bit mature, we wanted this to target early stage.

Are you saying that there are technologies that are close to being commercially scalable?

We think there are far too few.

Given all the challenges we just discussed, what percentage of clothing being collected in stores is finding its way back into an H&M garment?

Now it’s just super scarce, virtually less than 0.1% garment-to-garment. And that is the whole point. We want to fertilize by our initiatives as many garments to be used again, of course. Eventually, 100% of garments regardless of whether it’s been used once or repeatedly will be used again. Right now, it’s  Patagonia and Teijin [doing textile-to-textile recycling], but if you look at the grand scheme of things, it’s not much. There’s a need for solutions.

This marketing campaign is telling people to bring in their clothes. Doesn’t it seem to be jumping the gun, or an oversimplification to say, ‘Bring in your clothes, they’re going to be recycled into new clothes,’ when the majority will be downcycled or shipped abroad to be reworn?

It’s a journey, and that’s why we are getting engaged with it. It’s far away from perfect. We want to move the needle on technology for recycling.

Does the Conscious Collection include any consideration of the labor standards under which it was produced?

The good thing is, our labor program is valid for the whole supply chain. We are a leader on ensuring health and safety, compensation, working time, working hours. That is regardless of the type of collection we are producing. A supplier has to meet the minimum requirements of course, and if they want to grow to become a strategic supplier, they need to move beyond the minimum requirements.

But there have been several instances recently that paint a different picture. Significant safety violations, the factory that caught fire before every came in…

I can talk in general terms about our auditing formula. I have been traveling a lot to suppliers. I haven’t been an auditor myself, but we have a very high level of standards. The suppliers are on different levels, but what we are doing is making sure if a supplier wants to work for us for a long time, we push a lot for them to have good management systems. So if something occurs, because things are occurring in all companies around the world every day, we ask them, ‘What are you doing to rectify that?’ But I don’t know the details of individual factories.

Has H&M thought about using polyester that is recycled from PET bottles?

We have a lot of that in this collection and other garments in the stores as well. We’ve tripled the amount of recycled polyester. I think we used 90 million PET bottles last year. It definitely can grow to more. There are some limitations, but we are looking into that. What we’re looking into is, Worn Again, we collaborate with them to look at how their solid waste technology could be advanced and commercialized. Some of the technologies are looking into how you can take a poly-cotton blend and separate the materials. A lot of work needs to be done in that area before it becomes meaningful to design for recyclability. The Teijin-like technologies that also must go down in terms of energy use, so it becomes commercial. They have to be smart solutions from a lifecycle perspective. But now there is PET bottles and that is what we are going for. There’s not enough options out there.

Were you aware of Fashion Revolution Week before you launched this campaign?

No, no.

It’s quite a large campaign.

Yeah. We have been in discussions with them when they talked about the coincidental weeks. We share the same mission when it comes to labor standards, and social conditions in factories in our supply chain, and wanting to see how we can move the industry. Sustainability is about that for sure. But it’s also a lot about the environmental. But I think it’s unfortunate that we were doing it at the same time, that was not our intention.

Has there been any talk of simplifying the number of SKUs, or changing the type of material used to manufacture H&M’s garments to make recycling simpler?

You’re talking about designing for recyclability. The technologies today are so imperfect, so I don’t think it makes much sense to design for recyclability when you have a reality where 0.1% of fibers are being recycled. So I think we need to put effort into moving the technology.

This research and technology, and the Conscious Collection, how does it fit into H&M’s plans for increasing revenues and sales?

For us, we really think that in general sustainability becomes a prerequisite for profitability in the long run. Circular is the future. We don’t know how, we just realized we need to fertilize innovation, our industry peers can pitch in and collaborate on this as well.

How do you respond to charges from environmental advocates that say H&M’s business model of increasing the flow of clothes through the system is fundamentally unsustainable?

That’s a big question. We are not sustainable today. And unfortunately, I don’t know a lot of companies that are. We have a big responsibility. When you or someone else decides to buy new clothing, we want to be the best option. What are we are embarking on in this exhibition on closing the loop, is looking under the hood of what the negative impact of consumption is. It’s the use of virgin materials. While companies have been growing – and we are no exception – it has been in line with an increase in raw material consumption and revenue. We want to decouple that, and decouple the need for virgin materials. Because then you are taking away by far the most negative impact. We have to do work with what we can, I hope we can inspire others to do the same.

It’s not the industry, it’s the society. It’s not about minimizing, minimizing, minimizing, almost wishing you weren’t born, it’s about looking for how can you design the system so you are maximizing the positive effects, and do away with the unsustainable negative. That is about looking at effectiveness, as opposed to just efficiency. Often people are stuck on that. It’s almost suffocating. We have to realize we live within the system.

Do you think the fact that H&M is majority family-owned instead of shareholder owned allows H&M more leeway to invest in these initiatives?

Yes. And I really think it’s almost giving us a responsibility to work honestly, as opposed to companies who have a much more fragmented ownership system. The family has been there for 70 years, and they have no plans to go away. Our CEO is talking about the company he will leave behind. So, I do believe that it’s a huge opportunity.

When people criticize the campaign as greenwashing, does that give the leadership pause about continuing to publicize these efforts?

I don’t think there’s an option to stop talking about sustainability. It doesn’t help if people are pointing fingers and talking about what’s imperfect instead of about what is actually moving the needle. We really think we also have a possibility to help customers express their personality. I think that’s where we have a huge opportunity.

My Takeaway

I’ve extensively researched the eco-system of recycling clothing, and everything he said in the interview rang true. The technology for recycling clothing just isn’t there. And if H&M could find a way to close the loop when it comes to all clothing, that would be a game-changing breakthrough. It would also allow them to continue to grow within their current business model, and do so sustainably. It would ripple across the entire fashion industry.

Yes, it is poor planning by their marketing team to situate World Recycling Week at the same time as Fashion Revolution Week. It’s also an oversimplification to say your clothing will be recycled into new clothing, when the majority of it will be downcycled and resold. But that certainly is better than it going to the landfill, and if this campaign gets more consumers to recycle their clothes, rather than trash them, it’s a good thing.

I believe that H&M is genuinely concerned with doing right by the environment, and slowly trying to turn a huge ship, while other brands ignore the issue. I know that this interview will be no means quiet the criticism of H&M. But to H&M, criticism that they aren’t moving fast enough, that they are greenwashing, that they are unsustainable by existing, doesn’t seem to matter. They aren’t going to put themselves out of business. Instead, they are intent on moving forward with research to solve the problem of recycling.

I still would recommend you buy less and buy better. I would still hope that some sort of legislation is put in place to increase the use of PET bottles for polyester and decrease the use of petroleum. But until then, my opinion is that these expensive, careful efforts to make a better fashion system are to be applauded.

Well, that’s what I think this week, anyway.

Correction: I earlier titled this blog post saying I talked to H&M’s Head of Sustainability. I meant that in a general way, but it turns out H&M has an official “Head of Sustainability” as well, Anna Gedda. I’ve corrected the title of this post.