When shopping for environmentally-friendly products, people tend to pay more attention to the labels on their food and infant care products than the labels on clothes, according to Cotton Incorporated’s 2013 Environment Survey.
Joanna Del Rosario, 19, freshman accounting major, looks at the price of her clothing before she considers anything else.
“I don’t really think of how sustainable it is what I buy,” Del Rosario, a fashion blogger, said. “If it’s good quality and cheap then I’ll buy it.”
While environmental friendliness is not a primary concern when buying clothes, it has been found that 70 percent of shoppers would be bothered if they discovered that a product they bought was made in a non-eco friendly way.
The emerging concern among shoppers for more sustainable products and the retail industry’s desire to be more environmentally conscious are leading companies to take necessary measures.
H&M, the powerful Swedish clothing retailer, is one of the leading companies to look at sustainability from all aspects, including being environmentally, socially and economically conscious.
This year, H&M has released their twelfth annual Conscious Actions Sustainability Report, making their efforts and progress toward sustainability available for the world to see.
“At H&M we want to use our scale to bring about systemic change to our industry and across our entire value chain,” said Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M.
With the company being known for its fast fashion (high volume production and sales of trendy clothes that are meant to be replaced after few uses), the 2013 report aims highlights H&M’s new approach of creating sustainable fashion that is meant for the conscious consumer.
The report covers a wide range of achievements and areas of improvement from the production cycle to the influence they seek to have on how consumers take care of their clothes.
H&M’s key performances to date include the use of organic and recycled fabrics. For several years the company has been known to be one of the biggest users of organic cotton, which is a natural, renewable fiber. Conventional cotton used to make a t-shirt needs about 11 bathtubs of water to grow. Cotton production uses about 10 percent of all pesticides in the world, according to the report.
“With size comes responsibility and we have the opportunity to bring about massive change all the way from improving the livelihood of a cotton farmer to lowering the impacts from washing and drying our clothes,” Persson said. “We are proud of our achievements but also humbled by the challenges we face going forward.”
By using organic cotton and recycled cotton for garment production, the company seeks to reduce their impact on the environment significantly. Eleven percent of the materials used are organic, recycled or other innovative materials such as Tencel, a 100 percent biodegradable fabric. By 2020 the company aims to be 100 percent organic cotton.
H&M wants to prove that sustainable fashion does have to look like granola wear. With its Conscious Exclusive Collection, the company makes use of at least 50 percent of sustainable materials such as those mentioned previously.
This spring the collection included an array of evening appropriate fashion that is said to be red carpet ready. Actress Penelope Cruz set out to prove the validity of this claim by wearing a black flamenco inspired dress from the line at her recent appearance at the Vanity Fair Oscar after-party.
While the company understands that consumers buy clothes to individually express their own style, they do realize clothes that are no longer wanted usually end up in landfills. In an effort to create a closed loop for the unwanted clothes, H&M introduced a global garment collecting program where customers can bring in bags of old clothing to an H&M store and receive 15 percent off of their next purchase, according to their website.
The clothes are then sent to the nearest processing plant where they are recycled and turned into raw materials for future clothing production.
Material derived from this process can account for up to 20 percent of the cotton used for clothing. The company recognizes that the number may be low and explains that due to the techniques they know of now this is the highest content they can work with while ensuring the quality of the product.
Finding better techniques for recycling and reusing material is thus one of the company’s goals in closing the textile loop.
Radiology major Tracy Dong, was not familiar with H&M’s recycling program. Yet she thinks it is an incentive for her to recycle clothing at the store in order to receive a discount on her next purchase.
The 18-year-old freshman is not unfamiliar with idea of recycling clothing.
“I definitely try to keep my clothing in great shape,” she said. “The pieces that I grow out of I try to recycle so it’s not like I’m just throwing things away. That way people who are in need of clothing can make use of mine.”
CSUN apparel design and merchandising professor JongEun Kim said sustainability in fashion should stress well-made clothing. While using organic and environmentally friendly material is important, she puts more weight on longevity of properly made clothing.
If a piece of clothing is made well, then it can be used longer and does not end up being thrown away shortly after purchase.
“Another point of view for sustainability is looking at how the clothing is made, what kind of chemicals are used in the production process and what it takes to maintain the clothing once purchased,” Kim said. “What if we buy things made from organic material but have to dry clean the clothing? This is not sustainable. What if the clothes are made by illegal laborers or child workers? That is not sustainable. We need to understand what sustainability is here.”
H&M is trying to show that even though they cater to the masses with their lower budget fashion, they are trying to do things better for the environment with this new image. Some parts of their efforts are good for business while other parts are good for the environment, according to Kim.
Kim pointed out a few other major retailers in the sustainability game.
Patagonia, a high-end outdoor clothing company, is a member of several environmental movements. Similar to H&M, Patagonia also has a recycling program named the Common Threads Initiative, that focuses on making their product recyclable.
The program allows its customers to bring labeled Common Threads clothing back to stores where they are shipped off to be recycled into new Patagonia products.
A trade group of multiple companies interested in clothing retail, such as Gap, Levi’s, Nike and Target joined together to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
In 2012, the coalition founded the Higg Index, an assessment tool for companies to standardize how they measure and evaluate the environmental sustainability of products and recognize areas of improvement for their apparel.
But for Del Rosario, the price of clothing remains the deciding factor in shopping.
“I know that American Apparel is all into the American labor idea,” Del Rosario said. “I’m totally for it it’s just their stuff is kind of expensive.”