CLEAN BY DESIGN
H&M isn’t completely insouciant about Ma Nature. Despite the occasional PR stumble, it has been forthcoming about attaining specific sustainability benchmarks, including increasing its use of organically grown cotton by 50 percent every year until 2013. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Councils’s “Clean by Design” initiative, H&M has also committed to working with its Chinese suppliers to reduce water, energy, and toxic-chemical use in its supply chains.
Textile manufacturing consumes—and pollutes—as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric.
Textile manufacturing, after all, consumes—and pollutes—as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric, according to the NRDC. If only 100 small-to medium-size textile mills followed the environmental nonprofit’s recommended improvements, China would save more than 16 million metric tons of water annually (enough to provide 12.5 million people potable agua for one year), as well as eliminate nearly the same amount of emissions from 172,000 cars annually.
What’s in it for H&M besides good press and a warm, fuzzy feeling? A case study with the Redbud textile factory in Changsu (a Walmart supplier) showed that by adopting some of the NRDC’s best practices and ponying up an investment of $72,000, the factory is generating savings at a rate of $840,000 annually.
But will the Swedish label’s environmental cleanup efforts amount to a hill of knitted beanies if it compensates by cranking out clothing at an even more furious pace?
Designer Eliza Starbuck likens the new, cheaper clothing to candy wrappers. “It’s throwaway fashion or ‘trashion,’” she says. “If their prices are that cheap that people are throwing their disposable income at them—only to find that the clothes fall apart on the hangers and after a wash or two—they’re just creating garbage.”
Designer Eliza Starbuck likens the new, cheaper clothing to candy wrappers.
Concern for recession-pummeled pocketbooks is one thing, she notes, but at what cost? “It takes such a huge amount of human energy and textile fibers, dyes, and chemicals to create even poor-quality clothes,” she says. “They may be offering fashions at a price anyone can afford in an economic crunch, but they’re being irresponsible about what happens to the goods after the consumers purchase them.”
Few people, in the end, have the fortitude to pass up a good deal; like magpies, we’re drawn to what’s newest and shiniest. “When those items are cheap, we can consume more—and therefore compete—with less financial risk,” says Tara St. James, who designs Study NY, a sustainable fashion label in Brooklyn.
St. James isn’t convinced, however, that this isn’t a learned behavior, nor that consumers cannot be reeducated to prize quality over quantity, longevity over novelty. And when demand for higher-quality goods peaks, supply will not be far off. “It creates a responsibility in designers to develop products that not only have longer life spans but also products that will not be discarded after a season of use,” she says.
As mercurial as the speed of the fashion cycle is, it’s as dependent on the customer as it is the designer, since one party fuels the earnestness of the other. But whether the new frugality that the recession has ushered in will precipitate in a desire for long-term investment pieces or short-term throwaway garments—well, that remains the $4.95 question.