Suzhou Wahli is one of the big knitwear factories in China. Based just outside Shanghai, it’s exactly as you’d imagine it to be. It’s big, surrounded by smog and houses row after row of workers all sitting meticulously repeating their one small task in a long line of others doing the same in order to create the sweaters and cardigans we all wear everyday.
I’m taken there by the H&M Foundation, the non-profit arm of H&M, focused on people and planet in order to improve conditions for both. Inside this factory we’ve visited, there are hundreds of different garments being made at any one time for the stable of brands under its group’s umbrella, from H&M mainline, to COS, & Other Stories, even newest mate Arket.
But then so too are there designs being made for one of its largest fast fashion competitors: Zara. I spot a navy blue knitted sweater complete with pearl embellishment covering the shoulders as we wander through quality control. Another batch are then being rigorously steamed and folded yet a further room along.
This is one of those unspoken rules of the fashion industry – that when it comes to where things are made, everything is the same. Design input may be different and labeling results entirely separate, but the actual seamstresses doing the work don’t vary whatsoever.
Interestingly, however, this is also the one thing that it’s hoped will start to shift the fashion industry’s impact on the environment, and the conditions for its workers, forward. By working together, big brands in the space have greater power to make changes – a collective bargaining power if you will with the factories they work with to start evolving towards more sustainable practices. Suzhou Wahli is already well on that path, but many in China are not.
To take the environmental impact alone, change is becoming essential. There are different facts bandied about – some suggesting that fashion is the second largest polluter in the world after oil, others that it accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, uses a quarter of chemicals produced worldwide each year, and falls just behind agriculture in the amount of water it consumes.
On top of that, we also know over 100 billion items of clothing are produced worldwide every year, yet nearly three-fifths of those end up in incineration or landfill within the same 12 months, according to McKinsey & Company. In addition, with the global population expected to increase to 9.8 billion in 2050, it’s fair to assume consumption is only set to go up.
Any way you look at it, the damage fashion and textiles create, is real, Erik Bang, innovation lead of the H&M Foundation tells me.
In 2016, H&M announced its goal to be entirely circular by 2030. What that means is shifting from the traditional linear model we’ve all been living of make, use, throw, to one where things are recycled, refashioned and reused, in order to combat this.
“We need to reinvent every step of the value chain,” says Bang. “We need to find new materials, new ways of making fashion, new ways of distributing, selling and deriving value out of the garments, then extending their life and as a final step getting them back again. Innovation is needed at every stage.”
In practice, the 2030 goal is an ambitious one. Harsha Vardhan, global environment manager for H&M, says the two biggest challenges to face on this journey are around recycling technology and the materials used themselves.
His team, for instance, are currently evaluating every single material used by the group and creating a roadmap accordingly. Some, like acryclic, just don’t have any sustainable options so alternatives need to be found, he explains. Others do, but scalability still remains an issue.
Scalability is also the key challenge with recycling, Vardhan notes. The majority of the industry uses material blends at this point, which are more complicated to recycle because of the fact they need sorting and extracting accordingly. “Right now all of the sorting technologies are manual, there is no automation there, whether it is for color or blends, so there is some experienced person sitting and sorting it with their hands, and that is not going to work because it’s not scalable.”
At the same time, the recycling technology itself is still relatively limited in terms of quality and cost, as well as the amount of energy it uses. “You end up recycling materials but at the same time you use a lot of energy, and in some countries like China it’s all coal, so that’s not really sustainable either,” Vardhan adds. Energy consumption at large, as well as water usage, are other big challenges the industry is confronting, he notes.
The fact is, a lot of the innovation that needs to happen isn’t particularly glamorous. Yet the idea of sustainability has become almost ‘fashionable’ itself of late. Where Vogue recently published a piece saying 2017 was the year “sustainability became sexy”, for H&M it’s actually anything but – it’s hard and very real work, according to Vardhan.
One way the H&M Foundation has jazzed it up a touch however, is with its Global Change Awards. Now just about to enter its third year, the competition is focused on finding early-stage innovations that will help speed up the shift from a linear to a circular fashion industry.
Winners in the past have included everything from a silk-like textile made from citrus juice through to a leather made from grapes. There’s also been a solar-powered solution to creating nylon and an RFID tag the size of a thread to identify material blends at the recycling stage.
This year saw 2,600 entries from 151 countries. The resulting five selected innovations include Crop-A-Porter, which uses leftovers from food crop harvests to make sustainable bio-textiles; Algae Apparel, which turns algae into bio-fiber and eco-friendly dye that is also good for the skin; Smart Stitch, a dissolvable thread that makes repairing and recycling a breeze; The Regenerator, which recirculates fashion by separating cotton and polyester blends, turning them into new textile fiber; and Fungi Fashion, a custom-made clothes line made from decomposable mushroom roots.
Between them they get a split of a one million euro grant. Members of the public are currently invited to vote for their favorite to help decide how that sum gets divvied up, which will be announced at the ceremony later this month.
The aim of the award, which also includes a yearlong accelerator program in partnership with Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, is to not only raise awareness of the innovation that exists, but to drive scalability and ultimately partnerships.
“Without innovation we don’t move forward at all. We need these brave visionaries with crazy ideas. But we also need them to be scalable,” Yosef El Natour, country manager for H&M in the Far East Asia region, says when we meet in the company’s Shanghai office.
And for Bang, this is where the focus is about collaboration once again. These winning innovations are not for H&M specifically, but for the whole industry. “That’s super important from our perspective. Partly because it’s a legal requirement for us [as a non-profit], but also because H&M is a big player but also a small part of a huge industry. For impact we have to include everybody.”
The role of the H&M Foundation and the accelerator program is to connect the innovators to the industry. That’s what’s primarily happening during the trip to China – introducing last year’s winners to relevant players in the space and helping to ensure they understand the way everything works in order to ultimately facilitate scale.
The measure of success for Bang is unsurprisingly about innovation being taken up – by H&M or by any other brand.
For Vardhan, however, to get to that point there needs to be collective ambition from the industry at large. “If you want to scale up and get more investment into this, you need to have collective ambition. Each company has their own needs, their own way of working and their own timeline… but if five of us go to our suppliers or innovators and say we want to be climate neutral by 2030, then it will happen. It will be driven by demand from the industry.”
Collective ambition leads to collective bargaining. “If we don’t tackle it as an industry as a whole, then we will never win this,” El Natour notes. Time for everyone to step up.