H&M’s head of design, Ann-Sofie Johansson, on the challenges of making fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable
Some people say sustainable fashion can only comes when we change the business model – when profit doesn’t drive everything.
We want to change the model. We’re a big business, but we want to move into circularity, and the vision is to lead that change towards circular and renewable fashion. Yes, we think that’s kind of a ballsy vision – as it should be. We know people will always love fashion; I love fashion. But we want to know that what we consume is good. Moving into circularity is because we know resources are scarce and we can’t go on using things in the same way we have for the last 30 years. Circularity is both our mantra and our vision, so we can continue to make new fashion out of the old. And we do have some tough goals – by 2030, all the fabrics we create will be from sustainable sources.
How tough is that to achieve?
It’s quite tough, because we don’t have those fabrics yet today. We have organic cotton and we have recycled polyester, but there’s only so much you can do with these fabrics. For a smaller range, we have our Conscious Exclusive collection, which is limited. In that, we try out new sustainable fabrics, which hopefully can be scaled up and applied to more of our collections, but there are challenges.
What are those challenges?
Well, there are new fabrics on the market, like grape leather, for example, but the quantity is just so small. So the crucial part is scaling up for us. But we also invest in a lot of different companies and work with scientists. Here, we work with the Hong Kong Research Institute for Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA). The non-profit H&M Foundation did a collaboration with HKRITA; together we have – or they have – come up with a groundbreaking innovation, which is how to recycle blended fabrics. Recycling up to now has been mechanically made, where materials are ripped apart into separate ones. But with this innovation, we can recycle blended materials without any quality loss. For us, that’s really exciting, and also scalable on a larger and more practical level. This applies to all fashion businesses, not just H&M. That will be interesting to watch. The CEO of HKRITA, Edwin Keh, is someone you should talk to – he’s scientific and also really candid about the challenges.
Do you think people’s clothing labels will one day proclaim: “Made in such and such a laboratory”?
Maybe! We want to be as transparent as possible – to say this product is grown from this, or to identify a waste product that has been used. Like grape leather, for example – the leftovers from the wine industry. So now we all have to start drinking more wine! There’s something called orange fibre from the citrus peel, which could become something new.
On the topic of scale, you mentioned grape debris. How much of that is needed to make one bag?
It’s very hard to say with grape debris. The only thing I know is that we do Conscious Exclusives once per year. Last year [in April] we had a dress made from bionic yarn, which comes from plastic waste gathered from the shorelines of China. I can tell you that 89 plastic bottles went into that one dress. And it was really beautiful, too. It’s a good concrete example of this whole process.
What challenges are there that you feel consumers don’t understand about the sustainability debate?
For us, it’s still a question of making fashion that people want to wear. We have to be able to merge the two worlds even better – to make sustainability fashionable and fashion sustainable. That’s the challenge and that’s what Conscious Exclusive is about. We can make really beautiful clothes today using sustainable fabrics and make it all fashionable, because making sustainable clothes just for the sake of sustainability, without making them fashionable, makes no sense. That’s also not sustainable.
How much thought is given to how recyclable a collection is at the end of its life cycle?
To be honest, not enough – we’re not there yet. Again, it’s the marriage of sustainability and fashion. Everybody working at H&M, every designer, knows that we get opportunities and they know our values; they know the fabrics they can choose from. But I wish we could do more – and we have to, especially with 2030 in mind. Though now, with recycling and scientific breakthroughs like recycling-blended fabrics, it has become a bit easier.
What happens to fast fashion when sustainability catches up?
You know, we don’t like this term,“fast fashion”. But I met a professor in England who was thinking of extending the idea further in this way – what if we want to buy a top for going out on Saturday night; could we make it disposable? For example, after you wear it, it disappears, breaks down into cells or fibres, and can be recycled in a new way. You enjoy the party top, then it fades. That changes people’s reaction to “fast fashion” – from something intrinsically bad to something very progressive. We all love new things, we want new things, and this is a way to find novelty and turn that into something positive. We want to do good. That’s also why we want to be on top of change and lead.
Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen talks about not even wearing clothes in the conventional sense.
She’s right! And think about this: maybe you can just scan the image of what you want to wear onto yourself. So you would have, say, a body stocking, and you just scan a picture of that perfect print or the hue you want to wear, or something like that. It’s a sort of virtual reality.
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