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H&M Conscious New World

During the launch of H&M’s latest Conscious Collection, a debate arose about the true sustainability such a mass-produced brand can achieve. 

By Cassandra Pizzey / 03-04-2014

The launch of H&M’s latest Conscious Collection at Loods 6 in Amsterdam was threefold. An art project initiated by Pup Creative Agency was launched, the latest collection was shown to press and fashion insiders and a debate took place about the true sustainability of the Swedish brand. 

The art project took five talented young Dutch artists and paired them to five ‘muses’ among whom were a singer, actress, ballet dancer, model and presenter. Inspired by their muses and taking on board one of five main themes of sustainability (education, water, wages, raw materials and recycling) the artists created a series of works which will travel to five main cities in the Netherlands and be presented to the public. Artists included the talented illustrators Cil Laurens (education) and Charlotte Greeven (recycling) and Jolanda van Meringen (wages) who each created their vision of the theme, one that seemed very fitting with the aesthetic of the H&M brand. Tim van Cromvoirt – whose theme was water – created an interesting installation featuring a working heart that pumped round water, the essence of life as it were. Denise Collignon created a sculpture from the raw materials used to create H&M garments, inspired by the form of her dancer muse.

After the artworks, artists and muses were introduced it was time for a Q&A led by fashion insider Marieke Eyskoot. If you think this was just a publicity stunt which allowed H&M to bring across their sustainable vision, think again. First up was Maritha Lorentzon, social sustainability coordinator at H&M who has been with the company since 1982. She spoke of H&M’s quest to carry the name conscious and explained how the use of organic cotton, being responsible with water and producing recycled materials is not enough. Now H&M has taken on two new responsibilities; those of living wages and education. 

Lorentzon goes on to talk about two test factories that were set up in Cambodia and Bangladesh in November of 2013, where workers will be paid a living wage – one that is high enough to pay for housing, food and education – and will be educated in their rights as employees as well as receiving healthcare. “In 2020, our aim is to be completely sustainable,” she said. 

Eyskoot questioned whether the Conscious Collection as presented that day was truly made under equal, fair and sustainable conditions as many of the labels read Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia or China. It seems that working conditions in Cambodia and Bangladesh cannot be verified at the moment but it was pointed out that working standards in China are among the highest for mass-production countries. 

Speaking on behalf of non-profit organisation Solidaridad, was Janet Mensink, international programme coordinator cotton & textile. The organisation works on several different projects including sustainable materials and cotton in particular.

It is widely known that H&M is world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, but this isn’t necessarily the answer to sustainable fashion. Other solutions need to be found such as reducing the amount of water used to irrigate cotton fields, using non-chemical leather tans, using only organic silks and where possible recycling materials to make new ones.

With a celebrity-filled front row and a looming pre-shopping event, many of the audience members were becoming impatient with this unexpected serious debate and left the room to enjoy the more festive atmosphere in the main hall. 

Interestingly through, a number of audience members (among whom were the initiator of sustainable lifestyle brand Harry) had prepared critical responses to H&M’s proposed  consciousness. 

“If you are looking to improve the living and working standards of your workers, then why are you looking into new production territories such as Africa, where there are no ethical work standards in place and no rules or supervision?” asked one audience member. The reply mentioned the need to expand production and that China was set as first to grow, but indeed some production would be housed in Africa on the basis of living wages.

Another audience member addressed a more core problem, the fact that H&M itself is responsible for low-wage production and fast fashion in the first place. With new collections brought out every week, the consumer is constantly bombarded with the latest must haves which results in throw-away fashion. It’s a great burden to the mid range brands who simply can’t afford the best quality materials yet are also not able to lower their prices to the standards of H&M and Zara.

H&M claims that it’s latest Conscious Collection aims to make the consumer more aware of their personal choices when it comes to shopping but why then isn’t every collection they produce ‘conscious’? Because it wants to make fashion accessible to everyone, says Lorentzon, even those with small budgets. 

As an interesting solution to the problem of fast fashion, one audience member suggested a new model in which clothes weren’t bought but instead rented by customers who paid a price according to how many times they wore an item. 

It’s an intriguing idea but one that will not find it’s way to the high street any time soon we don’t think. In the meantime why not take responsibility as consumers and spend a little more time reading the labels of your clothes instead of rushing to the store to buy the next lot of €5 T-shirts.  

You can read H&M’s sustainability report for 2013 when it becomes available here – http://about.hm.com/en/About/Sustainability/Reporting-and-Resources/Reports.html

 

http://www.solidaridad.nl/katoen

 

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