Buttoned Up: H&M Loops In Waste Pickers For New Initiative

Most consumer-facing initiatives about fashion sustainability focus on recycling and reselling. Very few highlight social sustainability or the role humans play in the brutal world of textiles. H&M announced that all garments with poly buttons produced in India would be made from plastic reclaimed by waste pickers in Bengaluru, India, beginning with its new Studio 23 Collection. Pascal Brun, head of sustainability at H&M, tells Retail Insider more.

Retail Insider: Tell us about the new buttons.

Pascal Brun: We are creating a new product out of waste. And we are combining social inclusion and environmental impact. We can’t keep looking at the environmental impact or social angle—we have to combine the two.

Retail Insider: That’s brave. Brands seldom talk about the people in the textile chain unless something awful happens -- a factory fire, for example. Most Americans likely have no idea that waste pickers exist or that there are 4 million in India -- poor, harassed, and stigmatized. And here you are, issuing press releases and writing about them on your website. How did you decide to highlight them?

Brun: We started working with Saamuhika Shakti, an initiative that aims to protect waste pickers -- their earnings and the conditions around them. It recognizes them as a vital part of any city’s waste management system -- and aims to better their conditions in many ways, including education. 

The collected plastic gets turned into buttons, which we buy and use in our clothes. The idea is to find a solution that doesn’t create a problem somewhere else -- a win/win in every aspect. Every initiative we do needs to be looked at from that holistic approach. 

Retail Insider: Fashion is dirty and sustainability is complex. Consumers are interested in making better choices but are also easily overwhelmed by details. How do you decide how much to tell them?

Brun: There is no silver bullet here. We know our consumers want to know things about the product, on the product. So this is where it creates the biggest impact, either with a hangtag or a QR code. It’s not enough to push our 23-year-old customers to become more sustainable. We have to make sustainability more human and easier to adopt.

And the information has to be quite specific. It should be easy to understand, verified and certified. And that’s such a challenge; there is no regulation so far. Brands communicate whatever they want, creating even more confusion, skepticism, and mistrust. We are working with the EU commission and legislators in Asia and the U.S. to make one policy for green claims.

Retail Insid
er: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most aware, how savvy do you think the average consumer is about the complexities -- for example, that it’s more difficult to recycle blended fabrics?

Brun: Between three and five, depending on the country. Again rules would make it easier, so we could say, "This is what it means when we say recycled fiber" or "This is how we measure CO2 emission." We are pretty close to having that language in the EU. Within the next two to five years, we will have a very different level of consumer education.

Retail Insider: H&M was early in having consumers drop off clothes for recycling. Most people now know the story isn’t simple, and recycling clothing is problematic.

Brun: Yes. The waste hierarchy here is reuse, rework, and resell. Whatever we collect, if it’s in good condition, let’s rework it. If we can’t do that, let’s reuse it. How can we downcycle a product? And if we can’t do that, how can we recycle it? If we respect that hierarchy, we can reduce and eliminate waste getting into landfill.

Retail Insider: What industry efforts are getting your attention?

Brun: Some companies are putting QR codes into every garment, enabling recyclers to better understand the material. It also gives consumers better information when they go to resell the product. It’s an area we want to get into more.

Retail Insider: H&M, Zara and other fast-fashion retailers are often villainized. Much of what you sell winds up in landfills. How far have you come in terms of being seen as a sustainable brand versus a bad brand that’s just trying to be more sustainable?

Brun: I think we are perceived as a sustainable brand. But you touch on a good point about growth and volumes of production. Our industry has to find ways to decarbonize production and consumption. The only way to get there is to become more circular, looking at the full value chain of our products.

How do we design products so that we can recycle them and make them again? How do we choose the material that has the least environmental footprint? How do we choose suppliers? What about renewable energy and water consumption? How can we build circular models for repair, remake, vintage, resale, and secondhand? Circularity is the only way to decarbonize. An industry improvement is not good enough anymore. We need to transform it.

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