Hennes & Mauritz AB on Tuesday set the next milestone in its quest to close the loop on its production with a pledge to use only recycled or green materials in its products by 2030.
The ambitious goal was one of several laid out in the Swedish high-street player’s 2016 Sustainability Report. H&M also said it will work to reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than it emits, with the aim of becoming climate positive throughout its entire value chain by 2040.
The retailer has been steadily ramping up its green initiatives as competition heats up between fast-fashion giants to demonstrate their commitment to the environment. Inditex last year unveiled a major program, including the development of new textile fibers and a wide-scale domestic recycling project.
In 2011, H&M launched the Conscious Collection, which uses sustainable materials such as organic cotton, organic linen, Tencel and recycled polyester. This was followed in 2013 by a garment collection program that allows customers to drop off used clothing at its stores.
“It’s great to see that the interest in sustainability is increasing all over, from customers to shareholders to other brands and other actors within the industry,” Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M, told WWD.
“It’s of course good that everyone is pushing the development, but for us, we’re not doing this to beat our competitors. For us, this is really about safeguarding that we’re going to be in the industry not just in the next three years, but in the next 30 years,” she added.
Environmental group Greenpeace has rated H&M and Inditex among the front-runners in its “Detox My Fashion” campaign. Together with Benetton, they were awarded “avant-garde” status last year for their progress toward the goal of eliminating hazardous chemicals from the manufacture of clothes by 2020.
However, critics say the underlying fast-fashion business model is still one of growth and increasing production and consumption, which presents major challenges to environmental sustainability.
H&M reported that recycled and other sustainably sourced materials accounted for 26 percent of the textiles used in its products last year. But Gedda said the supply of sustainable materials was insufficient for future industry needs.
“We need to expand and scale up the more sustainable cotton cultivation that takes place today, both including organic but also better cotton, and then we need to invest in a lot more innovation,” she said.
“Today, for example, you are able to make new products out of old products on a very limited scale. We can do it with denim, for example, but because the fiber is so delicate, you need to blend in new material as well. In the future, we only want to use old fibers,” Gedda explained.
Through the nonprofit H&M Foundation, the retailer has met with entrepreneurs developing technology concepts that make the clothing industry more sustainable.
At its Global Change Award ceremony in Stockholm on Wednesday, the foundation is due to reveal how its grant of 1 million euros, or $1.09 million, will be allocated between the five winning projects.
H&M has so far collected 39,000 tons of unwanted textiles through its stores, equivalent to 196 million T-shirts, according to Gedda. By 2020, it aims to collect at least 25,000 tons of textiles every year, up from 16,000 in 2016.
“We know that around 2060, we’re going to be 10 billion people [on Earth], and all those people will need clothes somehow. At the same time, we have very finite resources. What we would like to do is to separate those two so that we can provide clothes that are good-looking, that are sustainable and affordable to many people,” said Gedda.
“Becoming 100 percent circular, of course, involves more than just materials: It involves how the products are designed, how the material is processed and also how the product is used by the consumer and what happens with the material afterwards,” she added.
To achieve its climate goal, H&M will focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy and compensating for unavoidable emissions with efforts to boost the planet’s climate resilience and support so-called carbon sinks — projects such as forests that capture carbon or other global-warming pollutants from the atmosphere.
The high street chain also pledged to switch to 100 percent renewable electricity. Last year, 96 percent of its global electricity in its own operations came from renewable sources, up from 78 percent in 2015.
For now, H&M is not passing on the extra cost of more sustainable materials to its customers.
“We’ve been working with organic cotton for a really long time, and that extra price is not paid by the consumer but rather by us. We believe that that is simply an investment in the product and in what our customers are expecting from us,” said Gedda.
“If we’re going to reach the material goal we have for 2030, of course, short term we’re going to need investment, and also paying higher prices for more sustainable materials, but with that kind of demand, you also get bigger supply and ultimately, the prices will go down. So in the long term, we can also see that there are real business benefits coming out of these quite big, bold and ambitious sustainability goals,” she concluded.