H&M Wants You To Recycle Your Clothes But The Greening Of Fashion Isn't All Good

This is a good idea, but like, a lot of "environmentally conscious" fashion efforts have hidden costs elsewhere.
Publish date:
June 26, 2013
h&m, recycling, green fashion

Just a few months after launching its “Conscious Collection,” H&M is dipping its toe into the world of green/sustainable/eco-fashion once again, by offering discounts to customers who donate their used clothing to the fast-fashion super store.

A noble effort, sure, but things are never that cut-and-sew when it comes to fashion.

The program works like this: Bring a bag of old clothes to your favorite H&M, and the store will give you a voucher to use toward new merchandise. The program already started at the company’s home base in Sweden back in February, and is set to be in all of H&M’s locations (nearly 3,000 worldwide) by the end of the year.

It’s a 180-degree turn from a surplus clothing scandal that embarrassed the company three years ago: A New York City H&M was caught shredding and dumping brand-new, unsold inventory. It didn’t help any that this particular H&M was located near a charity that provided clothes for the poor.

So this latest attempt at “greening” fashion serves not only to put H&M on the sustainability bandwagon, but to clean up its image. What will happen to the collected clothing? Right now, a Swiss company buys the used garments and either re-sells them or recycles them into items like cleaning cloths or toys.

This is a good idea, but like a lot of "environmentally conscious" fashion, efforts have hidden costs elsewhere.

For starters, it’s ironic that H&M is trying to combat the very sustainability problems it causes as a leading fast-fashion retailer. It’s almost impossible for fast-fashion and sustainability to exist under the same roof: One thrives on the rapid mass-production of trendy clothes, using cheap materials and even cheaper labor to ensure prices that customers won’t complain about; the other focuses on creating garments that will last a lifetime, from sustainable yet pricey raw materials, and, in the best case scenario, using labor that is fairly paid and production processes with limited impact on the environment.

Shorter story: When you try to reconcile fast-fashion and sustainability practices, there are going to be some trade-offs.

For one, clothing recycling is still not as advanced as the technology for recycling paper products. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recycled blended fibers. In many cases, fibers lose strength and quality after the recycling process. Apparel company Patagonia, which uses recycled materials in many of its products, acknowledges that recycling polyester to use in garments drives up the price of the end product. The cost of shipping fabrics to be recycled, along with an expensive chemical recycling process, result in fabrics that are 10 percent more expensive than “virgin” polyester fabrics.

Secondly, H&Ms program could hamper the collection efforts of clothing-based charities. Last year Goodwill faced a shortage of clothing donations, having to compete with pop-up donation locations from for-profit clothing recyclers. In this effort, H&M would also become a for-profit recycler -- the Business of Fashion reports that H&M plans to sell the used goods it collects from customers to a clothing recycler (though the company says it will invest a bulk of those proceeds in more textile recycling research).

Lastly -- how helpful is it to simply trade one bag of clothing for another? Armed with coupons, customers will have the incentive to just buy more, more, more of the fast-fashion that drives unsustainable practices in the first place.

H&M’s swap-and-shop effort may make some inroads in terms of how clothes are re-used, but it won’t do much to change a consumer culture in which clothes are expected to be cheap and considered to be disposable.

All said, it is notable that H&M is making an effort toward sustainability in fashion, especially after that dumpster embarrassment in 2010. At the very least, the program could make shoppers think twice before throwing that Hefty bag of last summer’s staples in the trash heap.

But moving an entire consumer base toward true sustainable fashion is an uphill battle. It would require convincing shoppers that they should pay higher prices for fewer clothes and keep them until they’re absolutely unwearable anymore. For most H&M shoppers, the impulse to buy clothes isn’t driven by a search for quality, but by the immediate desire to own something that looks trendy today, and might not be needed tomorrow.