Fast Fashion to a Circular Economy; is Sustainability the New Normal?

Fast Fashion to a Circular Economy; is Sustainability the New Normal?

Fast fashion is increasingly moving to a circular economy model- this begs the question: is sustainability the new normal for the consumer product industry?

H&M, the second-largest textiles retailer globally, with over 5000 stores, are making a conscious effort to reduce their environmental footprint and move towards a circular business model. Sustainability is no longer an option for fashion brands. Consumers are asking for brand transparency and to see proof of change, as sustainable fashion becomes the new normal.

The issue with sustainability is, it’s not regulated. It is not governed by a particular set of guidelines. It remains dependent on both the honesty and transparency of multi-national manufacturers.

“It’s a mindset, a movement that – although noble – isn’t automatically meaningful or impactful on a concrete level.” Consumers often fall into the trap of believing a brand is sustainable, when in fact many brands use the term to indicate only a vague intention to move towards change.

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Fast Fashion to a Circular Economy; is Sustainability the New Normal?

The fashion industry has been regarded as one of the most wasteful industries. The current system for producing, distributing, and using clothing operates in an almost completely linear way. 

Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short period, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration.

H&M has partnered with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to practice more sustainable initiatives in their stores globally, and become a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ brand – a term used for processes that intend to keep materials within a circular economy, conscious of their end of life at the beginning of the design process. Their main focuses are circularity, upcycle and transparency. 

Advances in recycling technology have led to innovative solutions, such as H&M’s coined ‘Green Machine.’ A first of its kind in separating and recycling polyester and cotton-blended clothing into new fibres and cellulose powder. 

The breakthrough was made when the quality is left intact as the process does not damage the fibres.

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The Green Machine:

  • Uses only heat, water, pressure and a biodegradable green chemical.
  • Is cost effective and time efficient.
  • Generates no secondary pollution since it’s a closed loop where the water, heat and chemicals are used again and again.

At H&M’s flagship store in Stockholm, customers can pay a nominal amount to have unwanted clothing transformed into new garments through the Green Machine method.

It’s a modest achievement, but one that may represent a turning point for an industry that struggles with waste and relies heavily on virgin polyester. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 1 percent of materials used to produce garments is recycled into new ones.

As Innovation Lead at H&M Foundation Erik Bang stated, “The Green Machine is a technological milestone as well as an economical one. We are close to not only recycling blend textiles at scale but also making it affordable for all, killing the myth of sustainability being a costly compromise. We can’t settle for less if we’re serious about stopping climate change.”

H&M is holding themselves accountable to move from fast fashion to circular. However, these developments will only transform the fashion world as long as customers buy-in. The look and feel — as well as the price — have to work. 

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