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Why H&M Group is Getting Involved in Textile Sorting

H&M Group is getting into the textile-sorting business.

On Wednesday, the Swedish retailer announced the debut of Looper Textile Co., a joint venture with recycling company Remondis that aims to extend the highest use of roughly 40 million garments this year.

“We are convinced that the textile loop, due to its very high complexity, can only be closed with trusting, innovative and like-minded partners along the value chain and are pleased to have found the synergy between H&M Group and Remondis,” said Marc Schubert, chief operations officer of the new company.

Textile waste isn’t virgin territory for H&M. The Cos and Monki owner was the first company to launch a global garment collection initiative in 2013. Through its investment arm, H&M Co:Lab, it has poured money into textile recycling platforms such as Renewcell, Infinited Fiber Company and Worn Again. It is also a participant in initiatives designed to scale textile-to-textile recycling, including Fashion for Good’s New Cotton Project and the Global Fashion Agenda’s Circular Fashion Partnership.

By linking up with Remondis, the fast-fashion purveyor said, it’s involving itself “more directly” in the development of infrastructure vital to “close the loop of fashion,” beginning in the European Union, where the labor-intensive work of collection and sorting means less than 40 percent of castoff clothing gets recaptured.

“Consequently, 60 percent of post-consumer textiles go directly to waste,” said Emily Bolon, Looper’s CEO. “By building infrastructure and solutions for collection and sorting, we hope to move one step closer toward enabling circularity, thereby minimizing the CO²-impact and improving resource efficiency.”

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Remondis can offer additional know-how, H&M Group added. The German multinational, it said, is a “long-standing leader” in waste management, with invaluable knowledge about providing collection and sorting solutions at scale. H&M’s in-store collection program will provide plenty of grist, though the scheme will also harvest garments from municipal containers across the bloc.

Looper won’t be confined to H&M’s use. It aims to become a “preferred” feedstock provider to businesses and innovators engaged in textile resale and recycling. It plans to “innovate” within the textile collection and sorting space, it said, by testing new collection strategies and implementing automated sorting technologies involving near-infrared light. It’s also keen on developing an “assortment” of partners, creating a collaborative network that can accelerate the collective effort to keep clothing from ending up in the landfill or incinerator. The company has its work cut out for it, however: Less than 1 percent of all garments gets recycled into new clothing today, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Post-consumer garments aside, so-called “redundant” textiles are a headache for H&M. As of Aug. 31, for instance, the Roblox collaborator was sitting on 47 billion Swedish kronor ($4.5 billion) of unsold goods, a 28 percent increase from the year before, according to its nine-month report. Overproduction was a recent bone of contention with the Norwegian Consumer Council, which accused H&M (and Zalando) of hoarding information about how much it doesn’t manage to sell on the Norwegian market. Both companies later submitted estimates after the Complaints Board for Environmental Information ruled that they were obliged to comply with the request.

H&M Foundation, H&M’s philanthropic arm, is also looking at how the issue of waste extends beyond the textile realm. Earlier this month, it revealed that it was giving Saamuhika Shakti $11 million over an initial four years to fund its efforts to provide decent work in the Indian city of Bengaluru while building a more circular economy.

The “collective impact” initiative helps tens of thousands of waste pickers sell the plastic they collect from the streets of Bengaluru to Hasiru Dala Innovations, a World Fair Trade Organization-approved company that sells the feedstock to manufacturers that turn it into buttons. H&M buys these same buttons, which it incorporates into clothing sold worldwide. This entire process, H&M Foundation said, creates economic benefits for Bengaluru’s waste pickers and “brings them closer to the formal sector.”

“With this development, waste pickers have the potential to become key players in a global circular system—contributing to the health and state of our planet, lifting themselves out of poverty and receiving recognition as the changemakers they truly are,” the organization added.