With Sustainability at the top of the fashion agenda in an increasingly discerning and judgemental public domain, the news that Hermes and Burberry are burning their bags (and all manner of other products) to protect brand image and keep their products out of the hands of ‘undesirables’, smacks of luxury fashion trying desperately to maintain a veneer of exclusivity and aspiration in a resolutely democratic and accessible digital age. Brands such as Burberry and Hermes have luxury at their core, but what does luxury mean? What has it meant historically? The average consumer is now familiar with the environmental issues caused by clothing production and our over use of plastic (recently highlighted during World Oceans Day, which gained vast media coverage) and the strain such production puts on our planet’s resources. Therefore, burning in excess of 30 million US dollars worth of product due to brand image vanity appears incredibly ugly, conjuring up images of anything but luxury. If luxury used to mean a product so painstakingly crafted from rare and expensive materials it was prohibitively expensive and the domain of the highest brands only, the explosion of new technologies for producing materials and products more quickly and cheaply along with the surge in numbers of the middle class in China, a majority consumer of Burberry goods globally, notions of luxury are changing. Artisan embroidery at Burberry Makers House exhibition – Image: Techstyler Millennial and Generation Z consumption patterns demonstrate that the next generations of customers overwhelmingly define luxury as linked to life experiences – events and opportunities that they can share on social media and that contribute to and celebrate their lifestyle choices. Witness the rise of sportswear brands – especially those nailing the ‘athleisure’ category – and fashion brands borrowing from streetwear. Business Insider’s recent survey of the favourite brands of 15,000 millenials revealed no luxury goods brands in the top twenty. At position one was Apple, with Nike at 2 and Amazon at 5. Samsung, Sony, Microsoft and Google were all in the top 10. Millenials and Generation Z’ers consume digitally and live online. All the more confusing that luxury brands including Chanel and Celine refused to sell some or all of their products online until last year. Chanel maintains it will not sell their ready-to-wear collections online ‘any time soon’. So whilst this news of Burberry and, back in 2012, Hermes destroying resource-devouring products to the further detriment of the planet is a sustainability issue, the notion of brand image and exclusivity are at the heart of this wasteful practice. If or when ‘luxury’ brands shift their notion of luxury to focus on the next generation of consumers’ definition and desires in terms of what they deem to be luxurious, this practice of destruction will be less-linked to perceived brand value, at least. Burberry samples presented at their Makers House exhibition – Image: TechstylerFast fashion usually bears the brunt of this scrutiny and ‘luxury’ brands have historically hidden such practices well, until such destruction of valuable goods in increasingly challenging economic times surfaced, following a severe downturn in Burberry profits. The practice of burning product or tossing tonnes of samples into landfill is rife in fast fashion, it’s just less offensive when the product is not valued nearly as highly. What’s just as offensive and ugly is the volume. New technologies like 3D apparel design software CLO3D allow the realistic rendering of clothing without the need to manufacture a physical sample. If brands want to find their next generation of consumer they need to modernise their point of view on design and luxury and make drastic changes to their practices to measure up.
Interestingly, up until around six years ago, Burberry used to sell such products at staff, family and friends sample sales. They stopped this practice when they found their samples for sale on eBay, which raised concerns over IP and brand value. There was talk that product samples that didn’t ‘make the cut’ should not represent the brand in the public domain. Maybe it makes more sense to remove the labels and allow people to use products that have cost us and our planet so dearly?
Header Image: Burberry Makers House – Image: Techstyler
Bethany Williams’s London Fashion Week Mens presentation was set in the Charing Cross Library, forming the foundation of her brand’s seasonal message in the community mainstay of the local library. Free to all for intellectual enrichment regardless of background or beliefs, the library set the perfect tone for the presentation of the SS19 collection entitled “No Address Needed to Join”.
The presentation unravelled as stories within stories to a soundtrack of The Gingerbread man audiobook. The brand’s social and sustainability story was visually expressed through garments that appeared to have been crafted from sheets of compressed book pulp, cut into strips then hand-woven. Comprising of half a dozen looks representative of a materials re-appropriation design language, the textile-led designs mixed materials rich in text, texture and colour – exuberant and bold – as you would expect from a collection with such a strong social message.
A true team effort, Bethany’s collections rely upon co-operation and collaboration, which must involve vast planning, negotiations and partnership agreements. Her business model goes way beyond simply ordering fabrics from suppliers and working with garment manufacturers to sample and produce her collections. This season Bethany and her team worked with The Quaker Mobile Library, which makes literature available for borrowing to marginalised members of society who have no fixed abode (who are unable to register for public library services) and British publishing house Hachette UK. She obtained waste materials from Clay’s book manufacturing facility in Suffolk and took it to San Patrignano in Italy and worked alongside the community there to weave fabrics mixed from the book waste, waste from San Patrignano itself and donated pre-production waste from textile mills in Italy.
On the garment construction side, Bethany has continued the previous season’s partnership with the London College of Fashion’s ‘Making for Change’ programme, which supports the training of women in Downview Prison. Women on the programme will be constructing the jersey pieces for production orders of the collection. The production focuses on working closely with innovative rehabilitation programmes including San Patrignano, Making For Change at HMP Downview and Manx Workshop for the disabled (button production), providing skills and meaningful employment.
Making up a considerable portion of the collection were oversized hand-knitted jumpsuits, sweaters and trousers created in collaboration with Wool and Gang’s Heal the Wool yarn (made from 100% recycled Peruvian wool fibre with 30% of the yarn price donated to Friends of the Earth. Recycled wool was sourced from Kent for the hand embroidery on the knitwear pieces. All the sampling was hand-knitted by Bethany’s mother on the Isle of Man where she grew up. Yarns were also sourced from Chris Carney Collections, a recycling and sorting facility, where knitwear is washed and unravelled before being hand-knitting into pieces for the collection. The denim elements within the collection were also sourced in the same manner and unpicked before being reconstituted and hand-printed into new garments.
What transpires from this overview of the extensive collaborations and partnerships Bethany Williams forges is that sustainability is impressively integrated and fundamental to her brand, not a token afterthought or a simple matter of ordering organic or recycled materials for use in the collection – it is the very foundation of her creativity and modus operandi while celebrating inclusion, social mobility and community.
Here, fashion is a vehicle for good with her inspiring roster of collaborators for the creation of her collections and their delivery, which was achieved through a presentation in collaboration with social and environmental activists and TIH Models, a niche, socially engaged modelling agency exclusively featuring individuals in unique living conditions.
Of course working at a ‘grass-roots’ level reclaiming and re-appropriating materials from waste can make for difficulties in ensuring required quantities for production and potentially in consistency of material quality. The manual nature of many of the processes may also be challenging to scale up for larger production quantities. Both these factors mean this is not a business model that can scale easily, but maybe that’s not the point here. Speaking of fashion as a vehicle for positivity and change, Bethany Williams states “we provide an alternative system for fashion production, as we believe fashion’s reflection upon the world can create positive change.” Job done.
As part of this season’s community commitment, Bethany is donating 20% of the profits from this collection to The Quaker Mobile Library. Bethany Williams is available now at 50m, Ecclestone Yard, London.
Strolling along Old Street yesterday, I came across a plastic waste installation created by Andy Billett for Corona x Parley for the Oceans to mark their ambitious sustainability collaboration. Well known for their work with Adidas, Stella McCartney and other brands, the Parley team have pioneered the use of ocean waste transformed into synthetic yarns which are then reworked into textiles and products including apparel and footwear. I then connected with the Parley and Corona teams and came to learn more about how for World Oceans Day they are reimagining and recreating the Hawaiian shirt out of ocean plastic and safeguarding 100 beaches.
In the lead up to World Oceans Day, Corona is using plastic from beaches to build sculptures in London, Melbourne, Santiago, Bogota, Santo Domingo and Lima. These installations serve as a representation of the issue with the local plastic seamlessly integrating into Corona’s paradise imagery. The “Wave of Waste” sculpture in Old Street, London, features Australian actor Chris Hemsworth surfing in a wave of plastic collected in the UK, including waste from Holywell beach collected by The Marine Conservation Society. It brings the total weight to 1,200kg of plastic, with over 10,000 individual pieces of plastic – representing the amount of marine plastic pollution found on the beach every two miles in the UK.
To mark World Oceans Day, Corona and Parley for the Oceans have created a symbolic Hawaiian shirt woven from recycled ocean plastic yarn, complete with plastic waste print design (toothbrushes morph into marine life, amongst waves) to drive home the issue of often unseen plastics infiltrating our oceans.
The team at Parley are known for their Parley For The Ocean drive and previous collaborations include Parley x Adidas swimwear, clothing and trainers. This time around, they are working with Corona to go beyond product collaboration, on an initiative that seeks to protect 100 Islands around the world by 2020, spanning Mexico, Australia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Italy and the Maldives. The initiative combines an educational drive to put in place preventative measures for plastic waste entering the oceans, collection of plastic waste from beaches and design and development to convert the recovered plastic into new products. ‘Avoid. Intercept. Redesign.’ is the overarching strategy.
With sustainability and materials waste an ever more important issue, it’s interesting to reflect on public perception of textiles that are natural, and often considered more environmentally sound, versus those which are synthetic. This Hawaiian shirt is 100% polyester, created from plastic bottles which are made of a synthetic polymer that is structurally equivalent to polyester. The bottles are broken into flakes, then turned into a liquid form which can then be extruded into filaments which are spun – the resulting yarn can then be woven or knitted into new products, like this Hawaiian shirt. By contrast, recycling natural fibres like cotton or linen is not nearly as simple or efficient, and currently does not yield sufficient quality yarn that can be remade into apparel and footwear. In this sense, achieving sustainability with synthetics is currently more achievable, a fact that is often overlooked in the sustainability narrative between brands and consumers. It will be interesting to see how this changes as consumers continue to seek more sustainable clothing options and request transparency over materials sources, manufacturing and environmental impact.
To know more about the polyester making process click here
To know more about the recycled yarn process take a look at Bionic Yarn
The limited-edition shirts can be purchased here and proceeds from each Corona Hawaiian shirt will go to Parley for the Oceans to help support its mission to protect our oceans.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more frequently used buzz word in fashion than ‘sustainability’, right now. Following its use, the obvious question is often, “but what do you mean by sustainable”. Both a problem and a solution, sustainability runs a broad gamut including textile and garment manufacturing practices, to chemistry and materials science, then finally product sales, consumption and usage patterns. Digging deeper, what underlies this urgent and growing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry is the fact that is it the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas, but you probably know that by now. Why does that suddenly matter to many fashion brands and companies? Why are brands adopting “sustainability”. Broadly speaking, it is because of threats to profit margins (caused by increasing cost of natural resources and materials which are in sharp decline) and potential backlash from consumers who are beginning to understand the fashion industry’s wasteful methods are damaging the planet and its people.
To understand the environmental implications of the current methods used in the fashion industry it is helpful to understand the volume of resources (including energy and water) we use to make our clothes and how much use we get out of those clothes. Remembering that the planet’s resources are finite – we don’t have an endless supply of fossil fuels to burn to create electrical energy to power manufacturing and we don’t have endless access to clean water for growing cotton and dyeing processes), it follows that a circular way of manufacturing makes more sense than a linear one.
To differentiate between circular and linear using the example of jeans – If it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans and we wear them for a matter of months then throw them in the bin, never to be used again, this linear process depletes resources catastrophically. However, if those jeans could be turned into new materials (rather than thrown in the bin) that are themselves recyclable, then the resources used to manufacture those jeans provide products for a long and circular life – a perpetual one that is energy efficient and reduces the burden of future manufacturing and reduces the depletion of natural resources significantly.
This circularity was at the heart of the thinking behind the latest EU-funded project by the teams at BRIA and SABINNA, who created a fashion capsule collection of cotton and viscose garments which were then transformed into new, 100% recyclable and biodegradable materials that could be used for packaging and shop interiors. The materials are circular in that they can then be recycled a large number of times in order to keep the core fibres of the materials ‘alive’ and in use – thereby avoiding landfill.
BRIA x SABINNA garments, processes and new materials transformed into packaging
New materials in development in lab
New materials as garment swing tags
The processes BRIA x SABINNA used are based on simple organic chemistry – dissolving and reforming the cellulose molecules in the clothing into new 100% cellulose-based materials that were compressed into flexible sheets, in some cases like paper or a film, and in other cases like a thicker MDF-type ‘wood’ material. The processes vary depending on the new material being created, and the initial experiments were done on a small scale in a London-lab as ‘proof-of-concept’ that it is possible to turn any clothes made of cotton or viscose into new materials using minimal chemicals (and sometimes no chemicals at all) in ways that are sustainable in terms of the amount of natural resources (energy and water) needed to perform the recycling process and also in terms of the material outcome.
BRIA x Sabinna viscose knitted jumper, cotton shirt and denim jeans – later transformed into new materials
Laminate-effect textured card created from BRIA x SABINNA viscose knitted jumper above
Processing of denim into new packaging materials
If we look at other narratives around sustainability in fashion that call for up-cycling and wearing clothes for longer, or buying less, we see a shift of responsibility for sustainability from the industry to the consumer. Whilst this makes sense in terms of educating and informing consumers, it poses a huge problem in that it does not instigate change in the industry or challenge processes that are destroying the planet and harming people. This is what is making the shift of focus to circularity and science and technology for the answers to our most burning questions and problems in the industry crucial.
Development of new material from denim
In my design and innovation role at BRIA, I was a member of the team that conducted this project with the support of EU-funding from WEAR Sustain. The project was instigated following a trip to Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, during which my conversations with Marie-Clarie Daveu of Kering, Anna Gedda of H&M and Mira Duma of Future Tech Lab instigated a quest to understand just how big a challenge making sustainable products is for fashion brands, from the initial design process through to the end-of-life of the garment. Could brands, small and large alike, design and produce collections in a circular manner? What would it cost? Would the designs be compromised? What would the restrictions be? During a conversation with Vanessa Friedman she told me she thought sustainability was inherent in good fashion design, rather than an ‘add-on’. But how is it inherent? Does choosing organic cotton make a garment ‘sustainable’. Not if we consider circularity as the ultimate solution to the depletion and pollution caused by the fashion industry. So it has to go further. It has to be part of the way the collection is conceived, the materials are made, the construction methods used and the strategy for the ‘end-of-life’ of the garment – where does the garment go when it is no longer used? These were the questions we at BRIA sought to answer along with our collaborator SABINNA.
The result proves that any designer using 100% cotton and viscose is creating garments that are forever recyclable – any designer can use our processes to recycle their garments. It also proves that cotton and viscose clothing can even be recovered from landfill and processed using our method in order to keep the fibres in the circular system. One of the most exciting elements for us was to achieve new materials with garments including hand-knits, denim jeans and multi-yarn jacquard knits – showing that the thickness and form of the textile yields to the process equally well. The chemistry checks-out, giving clean and biodegradable results every time.
BRIA x SABINNA jeans
New materials created from 100% cotton jeans above
Bowl from recycled viscose process and swing tag and box from recycled denim process
The next step is to explore brand partnerships to allow companies to clean up their own supply chains – jeans offcuts used to make the shelving and flooring in-store? There is no reason why not. Branded silky cellophane-like film packaging made from recycled high-end viscose dresses? Hell yeah!
Thursday 16th November marked the 7th Annual Lovie Awards, honouring the best of the European Internet and recognising the talent making waves and effecting positive change across industries including gaming, film and fashion.
This year, Livia Firth was the winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur Award for her fight for sustainable fashion as the founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a brand/marketing consultancy that helps businesses to grow by creating, implementing and communicating sustainability solutions. More specifically, she was honoured for her Green Carpet Challenge initiative and using the internet to both educate the public about ethical and sustainable fashion consumption and to put pressure on brands to do more to meet sustainable business practices. On hearing of Livia’s accolade ahead of the Lovie Awards ceremony, I arranged to interview her to find out how Eco-Age is forging ahead with sustainability initiatives and to understand more about Livia’s goals and beliefs about the current state of sustainability in the fashion industry. Another precursor to this interview was hearing Livia passionately speak in May this year at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, where she boldly declared that the fashion industry was in trouble given the findings of The Circle report Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right To A Living Wage.
Livia Firth (left) and Jessica Simor QC (right) speaking on a panel chaired by Lucy Siegle at Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 2017 Image: Copenhagen Fashion Summit
‘Sustainability’, ‘circularity’ and ‘ethical practice’ are words used regularly in the fashion industry, but often lack specific meaning and clarity for both industry members and consumers. As we launch into our discussion, Livia Firth makes quick work of breaking down some of these meanings and provides a refreshingly clear and insightful commentary on what is happening in the industry right now and how it is effecting the planet and people. “Sustainability is a complex issue that needs to be communicated simply”.
Livia founded Eco-Age in 2009 as a brand consultancy providing sustainability strategies and communication tools to fashion brands. Their modus operandi is to demystify the supply chain so that brands can be sure they are working with suppliers and manufacturers that guarantee responsible sourcing and production of materials and ethical labour practices. She and her team work with several brands to help them become sustainable and conscious as part of their core operations and values – not as a token ‘project’ seeking to gain sustainability credentials, without true and ongoing commitment to a truly sustainable business model.
Livia points to a tactic of some large, fast-fashion brands, of producing a product or small number of products ‘sustainably’, that are then heavily promoted in an attempt to create a cleaner, greener brand image, which she dismisses as “bullshit green-washing”, to divert attention from the dirty fashion practices continuing throughout the supply chain in those brands. She points to fast-fashion as the culprit for the dire and urgent environmental crises coming about now, and cites the endemic use of slave labour and unsafe working practices in the Far East as the root of the problem with the fast-fashion business model, which she says “must change”. Eco-Age refuses to conduct business with fast-fashion businesses due to the ethical crimes being committed and their failure to provide a living wage. To that end, Eco-Age works with luxury brands, which she explains as having the R&D budget and story-telling capability through their brands, to produce and sell fashion in an aspirational and responsible way.
Discussing sustainability initiatives with Livia Firth (right), ahead of receiving her Lovie Award Image: The 7th Annual Lovie Awards
My conversation with Livia throws up some nostalgic stories about her travels in search of responsibly-sourced materials, including a recent trip to my native Australia, where she visited a farm a stone’s throw (in Australian terms) from where my father farms his sheep. She spoke of the farmers describing themselves as ‘custodians of the land’ and the sheep their treasures from which their livelihood stems. It is familiar to me – I grew up in a family of wheat and sheep farmers in Australia – and it brings back beautiful memories of when the nobility and longevity of wool was far more powerful than the cheap, fast pull of Primark.
“I’m 48. I’m old enough to have lived without fast-fashion. We knew how to appreciate quality”. Frank and to the point, Livia poetically describes fast-fashion as the trigger for our ‘divorce’ from fashion made from quality materials, that we historically loved, cherished and passed on. She explained that her team chat about the state of fast-fashion in their office, commenting on how we have overindulged on fast-fashion, consuming too much, too quickly. ‘So we’ve binged on fast-fashion and now it’s time for a diet in the form of sustainable, ethically made fashion?’ I ask. “YES!” is Livia’s emphatic response.
As we discuss the role of Eco-Age and others trying to transform the industry, it becomes apparent that fashion businesses wanting to transform their practices to meet increasing consumer demands for transparency and low environmental impact will need to function in a socially and politically compliant framework, no longer focussed primarily (or perhaps solely) on profits. This is where the tension, and the biggest challenge, lies, according to Livia. Due to planetary changes, including extreme flooding, drought and pollution to waterways, manufacturers are being forced to accept that depleted resources will effect production quantities and therefore effect price (and their ability to sustain the fast-fashion model) in a way that is physically and economically unsustainable – never mind the highly questionable ethics. When profit margins are hit, action is likely.
Hearing about Eco-Age initiatives from Harriet Vocking, Head of Marketing (left) and Communication and Hannah Levitt, Senior Account Manager (right) Image: The 7th Annual Lovie Awards
We turn to new technologies to solve some of the biggest challenges we face, both within fashion and other industries. Livia comments that Fashion Tech Lab, a fund launched by Mira Duma earlier this year, is bringing new technologies to the fore that provide solutions that harness the power of science and that do not come at a huge environmental cost. Discussing new scientific developments with Livia, she declares “science is our friend”. “It can help us transition to the future without compromising on ethics”. Her excitement at developments in materials so far, include lab-grown leather, mushroom and pineapple leathers and Orange Fiber, and she sees the relationship with fashion and technology as growing harmoniously – as long as technological advancements are not at a human cost. The evolution of robotics, for example, worries Livia, along with the potential impact on future workforces. When transitioning from ‘human-led’ to ‘tech-led’, taking the time for reflection and regulation to determine where the future career paths lie for those human workers is essential, she says.
Livia Firth and Mira Duma have been friends for some time. Describing her as a warrior, Livia tells me about a call she received from Mira after she had watched the ‘The True Cost’, pledging her commitment to doing something to help and describing how seeing the film had changed her. Mira re-surfaced some time later having founded FashionTech Lab and subsequently enlisted Livia to the board, helping to guide and drive their initiatives forward.
Livia’s online power is in her ability to harness and direct the voice of ethical practice towards the global stage. Citing social media as a powerful and exciting tool, she comments that being awarded a Lovie is recognition of her engagement with the public, and indeed other public figures, to inform, educate and enlighten consumers – a powerful piece of the puzzle that requires solving to transform the polluting fashion industry. “Imagine if every big blogger started to talk about social justice and environmental issues (on social media)! It would change everything!”
Livia harnessing the power of Instagram to educate and inform consumers
The passion and commitment Livia has to effect positive change in the world’s second most polluting industry is crystal clear. As an extension of the brands, manufacturers and makers (the fashion industry ‘stakeholders’) that Eco-Age works with, her team created the Green Carpet Fashion Awards alongside the Camera Nazionale Della Moda (CNMI), to bring all members of the industry (including textile mills, seamstresses and tech pioneers) together and publicise their involvement in creating fashion. Undeniably, telling the story of how products are made and by whom is a powerful tool for engaging the public in choosing products that do not compromise the environment and the lives of others. Livia harnessed her power with actresses, brands and other high profile stakeholders to help her drive the message of conscious consumption.
The Seamstresses of Maison Valentino Awarded the Art of Craftsmanship by Annie Lennox Image: Eco-Age.com
Orange Fiber and Newlife awarded for Technology and Innovation, presented by Mira Duma (centre) and Derek Blasberg (right)
We discussed recycling of textiles and garments and Livia is initially dismissive, in the sense that the deep rooted problems in the fast-fashion model can never be solved by simply recycling the millions of tonnes of products produced every year, which deplete the planet’s resources only to be discarded (or recycled) after a handful or wears. The lack of provision of a living wage within the fast-fashion business model will not be addressed by creating a circular economy, she states. She also points to the growing issue of micro-plastics in our waterways from synthetic fabrics, which release these tiny plastic particles into the water with each wash and for which new technologies are being developed in order to ingest or filter them out. Some headway has been made here, but Livia sees this as yet another example of how the fast-fashion demands for synthetics (because natural fibres are too expensive) has led to environmental problems – causing dire costs to both planet and people.
Wrapping up my interview with the knowledge that we will be meeting at the Lovie Awards, Livia leaves me with the parting news of an upcoming store launch by Eco-Age client Bottletop, creating accessories made from recycled leathers in their flagship store, which is being entirely 3D printed from recycled plastic waste. Stay tuned for the upcoming story, here on Techstyler.
Header Image: Livia Firth, Winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur Award. Image: The 7th Annual Lovie Awards
H&M made a bold statement at the beginning of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, declaring their aim to become fully circular (which means moving towards using only recyclable materials and renewable energy sources) by 2030. I spoke with Anna Gedda, their Head of Sustainability to find out how.
Opening our discussion, I asked how H&M will become a fully circular company, with a particular emphasis on materials, which are a key challenge in terms of natural resource consumption and the challenges in recycling textiles containing multiple fibre types – cotton and elastane, for example. Here is Anna’s response:
“We have looked into different parts of a circular system and identified areas to focus on. We use 20% recyclable or recycled materials. We need to develop our current materials so that we can achieve 100%, and also replace some of the currently used materials with new ones”.
Anna then mentions the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award, which looks for early stage sustainable materials via their annual global competition. This competition is a key source of inspiration and initial ideas for the development of new materials for H&M. She outlines some of the recent winning entries, including a textile that acts as a solar panel, a leather made of grape waste, and previously a citrus waste textile. She explains that it is not only new materials being proposed, but new processes for manufacturing textiles are also being devised. The winners may develop materials for H&M, Anna explains, but the competition has an altruistic outlook, which I interpret as meaning it aims to unearth great ideas and developments for their own sake, aligned with the company’s CSR mandate. Anna goes on to to say that whilst H&M aim to identify innovation and scale it, she concedes that many ideas that work in the lab are not scalable, and therefore not feasible for H&M’s products.
Grape Leather Innovation
Anna segues into the H&M sustainable Conscious Exclusive collection, which is in store all year round and uses innovative recycled and organic materials, including Bionic yarn created from recycled ocean plastic. H&M uses this collection as a testing ground for sustainable fabrics with the aim of increasing demand for, and awareness of, sustainable products amongst consumers; ultimately bringing the prices down. This ‘dipping the toe in’ approach is a safe way for H&M to experiment with introducing new technology and textiles into their supply chain without significantly impacting their bottom line, and without taking big risks.
Linking back to the Global Change Award, Anna explains that in addition to receiving prize money, the winners take part in a year long accelerator, which gives them access to the H&M supply chain to work in their suppliers’ factories. During this time they are able to test their materials and innovations within a live supply chain context, revealing whether they have the potential to meet the demands of cutting, sewing and finishing in the garment making process – a useful learning experience for the competition winners.
Drilling down in to the materials innovation effort at H&M, I ask about the level of involvement of materials scientists in the development process and ask “who is driving materials innovation?” Anna explains that scientific input is key to achieving the 2030 circularity goal. The development of materials depends upon working with academics to understand planetary boundaries and new technologies for agriculture – cotton growing alternatives, for example. Academia, innovators, and suppliers – the actual producers – are key in driving materials innovation. She added that suppliers see that the fashion industry is changing and they want to create new materials to better meet sustainability demands.
My next question for Anna, aimed at digging into the issue of fair wages and exploitation in the garment industry, is: “What would you say to consumers who are concerned about the transparency, or a lack of transparency in manufacturing. How can consumers feel comfortable about H&M and about going into H&M and buying something off the shelf and knowing that nobody has been harmed in that process and that a fair wage has been paid, especially as your prices are so competitive. What would you say to the consumer who is concerned about that?”
Anna’s response was as follows: “I would say that they can be confident going into an H&M store and buy things that they love, I mean, we really have high ambitions and we have a long term perspective and want to be part of this industry not just for the next three years, but the next thirty years – we are doing what we can to ‘future-proof’ the company, as well as the industry.” In an age when transparency is increasingly important, H&M have engaged with the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) and are using the Higg Index, which they hope will go a long way to achieving transparency. Anna sees third party verification as an essential part in increasing transparency. Anna mentions the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report (summarised here) which uses the Higg Index, an open source supply chain and transparency assessment tool, stating that she believes this demonstrates how third party verification (from SAC) can lend credibility to the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts.
Wrapping up the interview, I ask Anna what she considers to be the most exciting and game changing technology in the industry’s efforts to become sustainable. “Finding ways to recycle from textile to textile – today you are not able to do this in a scalable and efficient way, because you don’t have the technology.” The aim is to be able to place any garment/textile in a solvent, recover the fibres and use them to make new textiles. “This will be a game changer for a circular system, and I think we will see such technologies within the next five years.” She tells me she has seen technologies approaching this capability already. Textile recycling is already possible in this manner, but there are limitations as to the fibres that can be recovered, and some blended textiles (woven cotton and elastane, for example) can not be fully recycled using current technology.
Content Thread for textile recycling
In closing, Anna makes a key point in terms of this recyclability versus design philosophy at H&M – designers being restricted to using one type of fibre or material can significantly restrict their creativity and, ultimately, the aesthetics of the garment. She suggests that single fibre designs may not satisfy customer demand for interesting products, so full recyclability of all textile blends in order to achieve circularity without a compromise on design appears to be the answer.