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H&M Bets on These Sustainability Innovators to Help it Dial Back Fast Fashion’s Impacts

H&M is trying to bring sustainable innovation to scale. And though some might argue the fast fashion purveyor has been a leader in the movement toward the very throwaway clothes the industry is now trying to save from landfills, it’s also been a leader in finding new ways for fashion to do less damage.

There are four major trends driving H&M’s sustainability efforts, Helena Helmersson, the company’s global head of production said at a talk at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference Tuesday: the fact that the world is consuming more than the planet can handle, demographic and sociocultural shifts, economic and political systems under pressure, and technology-driven changes.

“These macro forces are influencing a business like H&M,” Helmersson said. “We have to change our business model.”

[Read more about the macro forces shaping up in sustainability: Pivot or Die: The Megatrends That Will Capsize Your Supply Chain if You’re Not Paying Attention]

But what’s making changing that business model even more challenging than it already is? Consumers.

“Consumers today are moving from offline to online, they prefer platforms, they want nicer products faster and they also need technology to make it more convenient for them—and if possible, they don’t really want to pay for it,” Helmersson explained. “We have to move away from a linear business model to a circular one just to stay competitive.”

H&M’s overarching goal is to be the most loved design group in the world and it plans to get there by driving sustainability.

“To be the most loved, you need to show a certain leadership to also transform the industry,” Helmersson said. “It will not be enough to reach a target of saying all cotton comes from sustainable sources. We need to think bigger if we’re going to have an impact.”

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H&M has already set a target of having all of the cotton it uses come from sustainable sources by 2020 (so far they’ve reached 43 percent), and its latest goal is to have 100 percent of its materials come from recycled or sustainable sources by 2030. As of now, they’ve reached 26 percent.

One of those sustainable sources will be recycled cotton, which, as of last year accounted for just 0.12% of H&M’s inputs. The goal, however, is to get that number to 25.26% by 2030. Apart from that though, H&M has its sights largely set on textile to textile recycled polyester—a trend that appears to be emerging as more companies look to move away from plastic bottles altogether.

“One company we are collaborating with and where we see huge potential for the future is Worn Again,” Helmersson said. The innovative company, which H&M has invested in, has developed a textile to textile recycling technology that can separate and recapture discarded cotton and polyester and turn it into virgin-equivalent, cost competitive polyester and cellulosic raw materials. “We really do think this solution can bring circularity to the industry with recycled blended fabrics.”

Another company contributing to bringing circularity to the apparel industry, according to Helmersson, is Jeplan.

The Japanese company is also making clothing from clothing by dissolving polyester fiber from used garb, purifying it and then turning it into a polyester resin that can be used again as raw material for polyester.

“We believe that they have a solution that can actually be scaled up in only a couple of years,” Helmersson said. “Last year 1.8% of our polyester was recycled. This we have to scale up pretty fast and this we can only do in collaboration with innovative players out there.”

In its goal to also transition from traditional cellulosic materials to 100 percent recycled by 2030, H&M has its eye—and its dollars—on Re:newcell.

The company’s technology takes used cotton and other natural fibers from both pre and post consumer waste, dissolves it and turns it into a new biodegradable raw material pulp that can be turned into textile fibers and worked back into the textile production cycle to close the loop. H&M is so keen on what Re:newcell is doing that it has invested in the company and is now a minority shareholder.

H&M is the first to admit it doesn’t have all of the answers, but it’s testing, trying and seeing what works.

That’s how Arket came about. The newest brand in the H&M Group has a mission to “democratize quality,” and make “well-made, durable” fashion widely and consistently available.

Each garment comes with an Arket ID archive code that lets consumers find and re-find their favorite garments should they need to replace them, or if they want to recall where the product was made, how it was made and the story behind it. Sixty percent of all materials used for Arket come from sustainable sources because the brand was built with sustainability in mind. H&M is trying out new materials, like Econyl, a yarn made from plastic waste and recycled fishing nets, for swimwear for now, but plans include scaling the fiber’s use up to use in socks and accessories too.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Helmersson said, but, “We’re going to collaborate with other companies that have the same ambitions.”