By Ed King
Environmentally friendly fashion is here to stay, according to the head of Fashion and Sustainability at leading retailer H&M.
And key to this growing sector in the UK and Europe is the emphasis on stylish and contemporary clothing, as opposed to hair shirts, hemp sandals and straw hats.
Speaking at the launch of Climate Week 2012, where H&M is a lead sponsor, Catarina Midby said the company had learnt from a disastrous foray into the eco-clothing market in the mid 1990s.
Then the focus was on highlighting the use of organic materials, simple designs and the green ethos of their brand. But consumers were not impressed, and the series was withdrawn.
Nearly a decade later H&M’s new Conscious Collection is attempting to reverse that setback – again using ‘greener’ materials but this time stressing the style, not each item’s small carbon footprint.
“The 1990s collection was called nature calling, which sounds crazy today,” Midby says.
“Then we focused only on sustainability, and it was all unbleached materials and overtly ecological – and it didn’t sell well – because it didn’t look very fashionable – so it took us another ten years before we used organic cotton again.
“The first collection with organic cotton with a strong fashion message was in 2007 – since then we have been developing this and the overall work within the company. We call this conscious – which is all our work for a more sustainable future in fashion”.
The problem for retailers who outsource most of their production to the Far East, is keeping tabs on overseas suppliers and ensuring they buy into the company’s ethos.
Environmental regulations are often far more lax in developing countries, meaning that multinationals like H&M can play a vital role in encouraging suppliers to implement methods to protect humans and the surrounding land.
In many cases they offer a form of ecological governance that would otherwise be absent.
The past decade has seen a series of leading retailers pulled up for using child labour and using harmful chemicals in their production process – often in factories based in China, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
Midby is keen to stress that their ‘Conscious’ approach is not simply targeted at reducing H&M’s carbon emissions, but also improving working conditions and environmental practices of their suppliers.
The company’s Code of Conduct prohibits suppliers from using child labour, real fur, animal testing, and also says its auditors check factories in China and Turkey to ensure they comply with regulations.
In 2011 H&M also signed up to the Greenpeace Detox campaign, aimed at encouraging companies to cut their use of chemicals called nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which have been blamed for turning male fish into females.
Much of the pressure for change appears to come from consumers on the shop floor – amid growing awareness of the damage clothing production can cause.
For Midby this is a two-way process. If H&M can change their way of thinking and working, then so can the people who buy their products.
“We are working on our Co2 footprints at all levels, from transport, production and our stores,” she says.
“It’s also about informing and inspiring our customers to use fashion in a more low-carbon way. So basically it’s about developing a personal style that is long lasting – so we’re talking about sustainable design.
“It’s about caring for your clothes in a climate smart way – washing less and in lower temperatures…avoid tumble drying – and above all don’t throw any clothes away – swap them, sell them, revamp them or recycle them.”
Some experts appear convinced. Grazia Magazine said it was ‘smitten’ with the ‘obviously gorgeous visual aspects’ of the collection, while actress Kate Bosworth of Superman Returns fame was snapped in a skirt from the series while out in London.
So is sustainable fashion here to stay, or is it simply another passing fad in an industry that is constantly evolving? Fashion writer Ishwari Thopte told RTCC public pressure left major retailers in the UK with little choice but to follow this new trend for feel-good clothing.
“Given the current state of the environment and the rising awareness amongst consumers, eco-fashion is the only way forward if the industry wants to survive, ” she says.
“There is more demand for locally produced and durable products as we see the fast-fashion phenomenon giving way to slow-sustainable fashion.
“Consumers today have more purchasing power than ever before to make the right and conscious decisions and this is the driving force behind the current eco-fashion movement. It is definitely here to stay.”
That said – even H&M admit that as of 2012 this is not a case-study that can be scaled up across the world.
Midby says that while ‘mature’ markets such as Europe may get the eco-message, other areas are more interested in price than sustainability.
“This is a change in our way of consuming fashion. It’s inevitable, it’s global – it’s something our customers are very much into,” she says.
“But it differs across markets too – in England we have a good response to fashion with the added value of sustainability – in other markets they are not so interested.”
As for the theory that huge retailers are to blame for driving an unsustainable consumption culture, Midby admits that there is scope for everyone to use less, but argues that rather than being part of the problem, H&M are trying to offer solutions through their new approach.
“We’re always going to need clothes – aren’t we?,” she says. “In a way fashion is part of our lives – it’s a way to express yourself. But what we are aiming for is this added value in our clothes.
“We agree, we should consume less and more responsibly, but hopefully if you offer this added value maybe people will choose companies like that, rather than companies who don’t do anything.
“People are becoming more aware – especially fashion customers – fashion and food are things we all consume. There is a future for fashion – but with a more sustainable and responsible attitude.”
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