Perceived in a vacuum, H&M's
eco-luxe "Conscious Exclusive" collection
—the Dr. Jekyll to its primary line's cheap-chic Mr. Hyde—is everything a clothing brand should aspire to be. Replete with garments mindfully constructed from better-for-the-planet materials such as organic cotton
, recycled polyester
, organic silk, recycled wool
, and Tencel
, the Swedish retailer's annual foray into aspirational fashion is leagues away from its typical strategy of planned obsolescence
. To hear Anna Gedda, H&M's head of sustainability, tell it, however, Conscious allows the company to test new ideas that eventually filter into its discount threads, which Gedda says benefit from its research into water- and energy-saving technologies. Organic, recycled and so-called "Better Cotton,"
for instance, now account for 31 percent of H&M's total cotton use. (H&M is one of the world's biggest users
of certified organic cotton.) Together with Better Cotton, Gedda says H&M's use of sustainably sourced materials has grown from 11 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2016—not too shabby when you consider the firm's scale.
Of course, Gedda is telling us all this in Paris, capital of fashion and l’amour. At a gilded, frieze-adorned ballroom at the Westin, where H&M is hosting members of the press on its considerable dime, the byways of Bangladesh and Cambodia couldn’t be further away.
As the world’s second-largest apparel company—after Inditex, which owns Zara—H&M’s financial wherewithal is considerable. But so then is its clout, whether it’s used for good or ill.
It’s a dichotomy that’s hard to resolve. Which is the real H&M? Is it the “fast fashion” chain that hinges on a rapid two-step of consumption and disposal to the likely detriment of its workers in the developing world? (Karl-Johan Persson, the company’s CEO, infamously remarked that reducing consumer spending in the name of protecting the planet could create a “social catastrophe.”)
“Having people ask questions and challenging us is so important.” —Anna Gedda, H&M
Or is it the ethical enterprise that seeks to bolster consumer interest in issues such as textile waste, while advocating for living wages and funding innovations that could bring us closer to a closed-loop economy?
There are no easy answers, and Gedda, for one, welcomes the questions.
“Having people ask questions and challenging us is so important,” she said at a panel with Simon Collins, Julie Gilhart, Dilys Williams, and Scott Mackinlay Hahn. “Don’t stop doing it.”
As for this year’s Conscious Exclusive collection, which drops in about 180 stores worldwide and online at www.hm.com from April 7, here’s what we know.