Depending on whom you ask, H&M is either the problem or the solution. The Swedish retailer isn’t just any apparel firm, after all. When it comes perpetuating our culture of “fast fashion”—low-quality, inexpensive garments, churned out at a dizzying pace—H&M, with its more than 2,800 stores in 49 markets, is second only to Zara in terms of reach. But while H&M’s global influence isn’t a matter of debate, the company’s recent campaign to reposition itself as a bulwark of sustainability is far more controversial. Equally polarizing? H&M’s new, self-appointed role as ecological thought leader, which it parlayed on Thursday into its first-ever “Conscious Talk” panel on the fashion industry’s role in creating a sustainable future.
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Hosted by Vogue at the Condé Nast auditorium in New York City, the roster of experts comprised Helena Helmersson, H&M’s global head of sustainability; Catarina Midby, H&M’s global head of fashion and sustainability communication; fashion consultant (and former Barneys fashion director) Julie Gilhart; Loomstate founder Scott Mackinlay Hahn; Honest By’s Bruno Pieters; and Ecouterre’s own managing editor, Jasmin Malik Chua.
Thursday also marked the launch of H&M’s latest “Conscious” collection, as well as its new “Conscious Exclusive” line of eco-friendly partywear.
Simon Collins, dean of fashion at the Parsons The New School of Design, served as moderator.
It would be naive, of course, to ignore the marketing opportunity couched within the event. Thursday also marked the launch of H&M’s latest “Conscious” collection, as well as its new “Conscious Exclusive” line of eco-friendly partywear.
And while the main thread of discussion was the fashion’s role in raising sustainability’s profile, the conversation also served to underscore H&M’s own initiatives, including its nascent clothing-recycling program.
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Collins kicked off the conversation by asking what it would take to create a fashion revolution.
While Mackinlay Hahn reflected that it would be led by technology “allowing us to measure all that we consume in fashion and to hold people more accountable,” and others agreed, no one was really able to say just what those particular technologies were.
Gilhart opted for another approach. “We need to be patient,” she said, adding that it’s the younger generation of fashion design students, particularly those in progressive schools like Parsons, who will be the leaders for the revolution because sustainability is built into their curriculum and, therefore, DNA.
Considering H&M’s sustainable future, Helmersson noted that awareness of their consumer’s needs and encouraging shoppers to act more responsibly in how they care for garments would be important. Some of the examples given included their own garment-recycling scheme and washing clothing in cold water.
Panel attendee Carmen Artigas, dean of ethical fashion at the Centre for Social Innovation, said with rigid answers like that, it seemed H&M used the event as more of a PR move with H&M spokespersons giving “scripted answers.”
While Artigas says she left reflecting on H&M’s next step, she remarked that this remains a longer conversation and a very politicized topic, “but we must accelerate the creation of sustainable brands, especially by engaging consumers and offering them a more effective way to gain perspective.” It wasn’t all bad, though. “When H&M published their supplier list it was a huge step in the right direction, and I hope other companies will follow suit. Increased transparency and traceability is the name of the game for sustainable fashion,” she said.
For example, before the event, Ecouterre asked Midby, if H&M had ever considered breaking down the cost or tracking the supply chain of a $19.95 Conscious Collection dress for consumers, maybe the same way Pieters does with his Honest By label.
Midby replied that while H&M admires Pieter’s transparency and his creative communication, it’s just not possible.
“We are a big company and our collection is equally large and diverse, so we must go about it a little differently,” she said.
She cited H&M’s membership in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a consortium of manufacturers, retailers, non-governmental organizations, and academic experts, including Adidas, Esprit, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss, Nike, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, Timberland, Target, Walmart, the National Resource Defense Council, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“So far it’s a tool for companies to internally measure environmental impact throughout the supply chain, but we all aim to make this customer facing and are working on finding the right communicative form, ” she said. “It will take some more time but hopefully within not too long.”
Collins noted that all the answers to finding a sustainable future for fashion certainly wouldn’t be found at the panel, but it was a big step getting a company like H&M to start a conversation about sustainability.
People won’t always do the right thing,” Chua said, “but they’ll always do the easy thing.
Chua offered up to the panel a real look at the challenge of bringing sustainable fashion to the masses. “People won’t always do the right thing,” she said, “but they’ll always do the easy thing. Our challenge is making the right thing the easy thing.”
Midby echoed the sentiment pre-panel that the idea of creating something like the Conscious Collection was to offer customers a better choice of fashion with the added value of sustainability. “Our sustainability work is very extensive but people come to us for fashion, so if we want to get the message out and start a dialogue, we need to work around fashion and the collection.”
Gilhart sees a more aggressive future. “Everyone will eventually be responsible for what they make or get fined,” she said.
Thanks to Greenpeace’s aggressive “Detox” campaign, many big brands including luxury names like Chanel and Prada who have been contributing to massive deforestation and water pollution, are getting negative attention to force them to change. Even popular outerwear brands including Patagonia and The North Face haven’t escaped scrutiny.
Mackinlay Hahn offered perhaps the best advice for a takeaway, “Know where the top 10 things you use everyday come from and that will start bringing you to a higher level of thinking when it comes to consuming,” he said. “Also meditate. You’ll soon feel a difference.”
Sage words from one of the more sustainable designers out there.