On Monday 12th October, Scandinavian fast fashion empire H&M announced that they are partnering with Looop, a new garment-to-garment recycling system. Developed by The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) in collaboration with the brand’s non-profit arm H&M Foundation, the ‘world’s first in-store recycling system’ has been installed in the first instance at Drottninggatan 56 in H&M’s hometown of Stockholm, Sweden.
The announcement coincided with Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS), the annual conference on sustainability in fashion by Global Fashion Agenda which streamed virtually this year. A conversation between CEO of H&M Group Helena Helmersson and environmental science professor Johan Rockström at the event is now available to catch up on here. The pair discussed the conundrum of producing high volume fashion and staying within planetary boundaries, with Helmersson focusing on the potential of H&M’s circular design initiatives.
This week H&M have also been promoting their new men’s sustainable denim collection, Jeans Redesign, which was inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative. Garments in the capsule collection are made from up to 35% post-consumer recycled cotton, organic cotton and eco-friendly dyes. With all guns blazing towards a more sustainable future, is H&M finally moving beyond greenwashing with meaningful action, or just tiptoeing around systemic change?
Further reading: Can H&M Ever Be Sustainable?
First, let’s explore how the RE:MAKE recycling process actually works. The Looop system utilises Shima Seiki’s seam-free WHOLEGARMENT® knitting technology which requires no stitching. It promises to produce garment-knitted products from unwanted clothes by shredding down to fibre, spinning into yarn, and knitting a brand new garment. Customers can book a time, visit the H&M store with their pre-loved items, and watch as the machine cleans, shreds, filters, cards, draws, spins, twists and knits the material. After five hours, the customer can access their ‘new’ recycled product, which can take the form of eight different H&M designs: long-sleeved top, short-sleeved top, poncho, balloon-sleeve jumper, men’s sweater, kid’s sweater, baby blanket or scarf.
HKRITA plans to eventually license out this technology to help the entire fashion and textiles industry become more circular, a positive move that would prevent resource-rich H&M from being the gatekeepers of this potentially game-changing system. This service is accessible to the general public in Stockholm with the RE:MAKE lab visible in-store, but H&M have set their sights on worldwide domination, asking us to “imagine if we all had our own Looop machines at home”. Installing the technology so widely would take serious financial investment, but offering textile recycling facilities in centres of community – rather than just centres of consumption – could ensure the sustainability movement is not being led by brands, but by citizens.
It’s clear that H&M are pushing the circular economy (a model where resources are kept in the loop rather than extracting raw materials) as the answer to fashion’s prayers. They have started to walk the talk with this groundbreaking garment-to-garment recycling initiative, far beyond existing schemes such as their ‘Closed Loop’ recycling boxes, and beyond other retailers such as ASOS whose ‘circular’ collection was met with criticism for greenwashing. Unfortunately, there is still a huge elephant in the room. Two, actually.
As several Instagram comments point out, H&M have largely been investing in environmental sustainability, but have failed to fully address their social responsibility. Clean Clothes Campaign and various industry activists took to Twitter during Copenhagen Fashion Summit to criticize the event for promoting H&M, and failing to pass the mic to the people who make our clothes. From a parody CFS account, it was shared that: “Tens of thousands of, mostly women, garment workers in H&M’s supply chain have been waiting since March to be paid their legally owed wages, while the CEO preaches ‘sustainability’ from her Swedish summer house.” Beyond circularity, can a fashion brand really be called sustainable if there is no assurance that its workers are being paid a fair living wage?
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What’s more, the glaring issue of overproduction has not yet been tackled by the retail giant. While making steps to close the loop through garment recycling, the new Looop system along with various other sustainability initiatives is simply a drop in the ocean of the brand’s colossal output. H&M Group is still the world’s second largest clothing retailer (after Inditex, Zara’s parent company), with over 5,000 stores, 16 collections a year, and a reported profit of $230 million in the summer of 2020 alone. In contrast, an Earth Logic panel at CFS highlighted the problem with emphasising ‘techno fixes’ such as recycling instead of a true paradigm shift away from the pursuit of growth. Until fashion brands like H&M drastically scale down their production, it’s unlikely that we will be able to ‘close the loop’ before climate breakdown is irreversible.
As mentioned in the article, A Comprehensive Guide to Textile Recycling, recycling is not the solution to the fast fashion crisis, nor should it act as an enabler for us to produce and consume more clothing. Circular systems must be implemented, but only alongside a considerable reduction in resource use, and most importantly, prioritising the empowerment of marginalised people throughout the supply chain. Orsola De Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, summed it up perfectly in her message to Copenhagen Fashion Summit attendees: “We can talk about innovation all we like. But the one innovation we’ve never tried is treating each other as equals.”
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Cover image via H&M/YouTube.