Going green is a sign of the times
A delicate gown crafted from strips of silk and lace hangs on a rack filled with similarly refined pieces.
From wide-legged, snowy white trousers featuring hand-beaded embellishments, to a collarless cocoon coat made of plush jacquard fabric in contrasting tones of blue and bronze, the H&M Conscious Exclusive collection isn’t what one would expect to find from a “fastfashion retailer” let alone a collection labelled as “sustainable.”
“It has to be beautiful fashion because when you make beautiful fashion, I think then it is timeless. It is the beautiful, well-made pieces that you will save forever in your wardrobe,” Ann-Sofie Johansson, the head of design at H&M, explains of the range. “It can’t just be sustainable because sustainable clothes might not be so interesting. It has to be fashionable and then the sustainability is a real add-on.”
When it comes to fashion, sustainability is not what it used to be.
“We have come a long way from the days when we only had organic cotton to work with,” Johansson, speaking to an intimate breakout group of international fashion media during a presentation in Paris, says. “A collection made totally out of organic cotton doesn’t look that … fashionable or interesting. But now we have a range of different materials we can work with.”
Fabrics derived from recycled polyester, glass and denim — which manifests in the form of Denimite, a hard, bio-composite material that has a blue, marbled appearance — abound in the latest release, which was inspired by the more than 300-year-old fashion archives at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris including the work of French painter Gustave Moreau.
“Today it’s not possible to make all the fabrics we would like to make in a more sustainable way. The challenge is really the fabrics and most of the decorations and embellishments,” Johansson says. “It’s a matter of having the right amount of sustainable fabric and mixing that together to get the right feeling or drapiness.”
The collection, which sees the retailer’s design team work and rework the pieces for more than a year before completion, sees sustainable fabrics and manufacturing processes married alongside more “conventional” textiles.
But despite advances in making sustainable clothing more stylish, one major issue surrounding the in- dustry remains: What can be done with the millions of discarded garments once they’re no longer needed, in style … or, well, in demand?
The fashion industry is notorious for being resource-heavy. From water usage to textile waste — there is no shortage of sustainable concerns associated with the sartorial world.
“At this moment, it is the responsibility of all members of the apparel and textile industry to take action and create a healthier fashion industry, big or small,” Myriam Laroche, the founder of Vancouver’s Eco Fashion Week, says. “Taking action is what we need to do even if we are still trying to figure out how to create a healthy fashion industry, because it is the first time we are challenging the way it’s always been done.”
According to a report compiled by Giroux Environmental Consulting in 2014, no province or territory in Canada has widespread textile recycling programs in place. Many of the recycling initiatives and programs fall to branches of “charitable organizations” or non-profits — such as Value Village or Our Social Fabric — which aim to reduce the number of garments that wind up in our local landfills, while also sometimes turning a profit.
In addition to H&M, which collects used clothing by the bagful at each of its retail stores in partnership with I:CO, an increasing number of international brands are embracing the idea of reclaiming products for reuse. Levi’s accepts used denim while Nike takes used shoes to reuse the soles for rubber athletics surfaces, such as tracks.
The trend is occurring at a local level, too. Vancouver-based brand Peau de Loup sources all of its textiles from local sustainable sources or responsibly sourced factories through the Freedom Thread initiative, while Mountain Equipment Co-op boasts a line of outdoor gear crafted from recycled nylon and plastic and vegan-friendly MAT & NAT bags are made with 100 per cent recycled plastic.
The idea of recycling and reusing isn’t a new one for Montreal-based footwear brand Kamik. The 100-year-old operation has long been thinking about the disposal of its products — before they’re even made.
“Kamik uses thermoplastic resins, which is a form of synthetic rubber,” Joe Bichai, vicepresident of manufacturing at Kamik, says. “In addition to being a durable and lighterweight material than natural rubber, it’s also 100 per cent recyclable.” Scraps and rejected boots from the made-in-Canada brand are collected, “decontaminated,” and recycled at the Kamik factory and local recycling facilities. The materials, which are estimated to weigh in at more than 6,000 pounds per year (or 175,000 pairs of boots!) , is blended up and made into black boots and outsoles, according to the brand rep.
“We feel a deep commitment to the environment and to the communities that we serve around the world,” Bichai says. “With the support of our employees, suppliers, retailers and customers, we are continuously improving our ecological footprint at every stage of the product life cycle: material sourcing, production, packaging, transport and end of life.”
The issue of sustainability goes far beyond mere textiles and materials. Sustainability, in the true sense of the word, requires transparency from brands about several facets of their operations — from corporate infrastructure, to chemicals and pesticide awareness, to fair trade and zero waste initiatives, according to Laroche.
“The only way we will change the industry on an international level is by being transparent, admitting to our challenges and allowing collaboration to improve our practice and mentality,” Laroche says. “The brands that won’t join the conversation will only affect them negatively because they will not last.”
The desperate need for a sustainable shift has allowed for an air of collaboration in an industry that otherwise thrives on competition. “We are in a new era where we realize that sharing success doesn’t mean we are less successful, it multiplies it,” Laroche says.
A CHANGE OF PACE
While the idea of changing one’s wardrobe and shopping habits to accommodate a more sustainable sartorial style may seem daunting, Laroche believes it’s not only worthwhile — it’s necessary.
“We all have our different accessibility to resources — material, human, financial — personal values and beliefs, which all play their part and how we can be ‘eco,’ ” Laroche says. “We also have this issue with the word ‘sustainability’ because it’s a buzzword, because people think it is all encompassing and definitive but it’s not. It’s a process and there isn’t just one way to affect change towards sustainability.”
Laroche says it’s often the perceived workload involved with finding and buying sustainable pieces that deters shoppers from joining the movement in the first place.
“We are busy, stressed out, craving time for ourselves, we resist change, we love our comfort zone, so to consider sustainability feels like a big commitment, an effort or a burden,” she says. Eco has held a heavy, all-inclusive concept to date but we need to understand there is a spectrum and we don’t have to be ‘completely eco.’ Every little bit helps.”
She says the idea of sustainable fashion has become less about the products themselves and more about shoppers’ attitudes toward it.
“Sustainability is less understood as a trend but rather, a necessity to perpetuate the fashion industry, so shoppers are beginning to care more about sustainability,” she says. “We are still far from what it should be, but change is happening and it becomes more prominent every year.”
And as for what shoppers can do to learn more about the sustainable practices of their favourite brands, Laroche says it’s all about asking questions. “Ask questions in-store, find information on their website,” she says. “Be curious and interested in knowing more.”
The H&M Conscious Exclusive collection will launch in 180 H&M stores worldwide on April 7.
We are busy, stressed out, craving time for ourselves, we resist change, we love our comfort zone, so to consider sustainability feels like a big commitment, an effort or a burden.
The Vancouver Sun was a guest of H&M in Paris. H&M did not review or approve this article.