As much as faded flares and workmen dungarees are synonymous with hippy dippy flower children, the process of making denim garments is particular unkind to Mother Earth. For starters, a 2015 environmental impact study by jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co found that nearly 3,800 litres of water is used in making a single pair of jeans. The process of creating that perfectly distressed wash, rip and texture also requires high energy sandblasting techniques and the use of harsh chemicals - such as synthetic indigo dyes.
Now, Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M has taken the sting out of denim's gargantuan carbon footprint with its latest Close The Loop denim collection for men, women and kids, by using cotton recycled from discarded clothes melded with its organic sibling. Prices start from S$39.90 for a pair of artfully faded grey jeans for boys to a S$119 ladies denim jacket.
"On average, a person in a developed country consumes 20kg of clothing a year," reveals Carola Tembe, environmental sustainability coordinator at H&M.
"It used to be a risk to be sustainable as you're more vulnerable in your need to be transparent, but if you don't work on sustainability today, you are vulnerable to criticism. Customers are asking for organic, recycled products and are more aware and expect companies to work with sustainable raw materials."
In the winter of 2010, the company was at the centre of a highly publicised uproar when a graduate student in New York found bags of the brand's clothes deliberately slashed and dumped. But it seems to have recovered from what a company spokesman claimed to be an isolated incident. Since 2013, H&M has been holding an annual worldwide garment collection drive at its stores, offering vouchers in return for any donation of unwanted clothing. These discarded items - which could range from past season castoffs to embarrassing socks with holes, are then sent to various global facilities owned by Swiss company I:CO, where the items are categorised as clothes to be sold in the second-hand market, recycled into fibres for new clothing or as stuffing material for construction, car insulation or toys. Last month, H&M also announced a one million euro (S$1.6 million) prize for new techniques to recycle clothes. "We want customers to see old garments as a resource that can be recycled, and get used to the idea just like how they are used to recycling newspapers," adds Ms Tembe, during a presentation of the Close The Loop denim collection in the company's Stockholm headquarters.
"For us, it's a means of decoupling growth from the use of virgin, natural resources. It is also a way of securing materials at a predictable cost, as compared to the prices of cotton and oil that are always rising."
At the moment, just 20 per cent of the pieces in the collection are made from recycled yarns, with the remaining 78 per cent being organic cotton and 2 per cent elastane thrown in for stretch. This is because each recycled yarn needs to be of a minimum length and quality to be spun into a piece of denim material. As clothes are shredded during the recycling process, the recycled cotton fibres end up being very short and have to be woven with other new fibres to form durable fabrics. But the collection is just the beginning, assures H&M's spokesmen, in a long journey towards greater sustainability. The company aims to triple the number of garments made with at least 20 per cent recycled fabric.
"Recycling products already on the market is cheaper and more sustainable than growing raw materials, washing and dying," says Ms Tembe.
"We protect our long term interests by dealing with the problem of scarcity. It's a business opportunity to bring forward innovative ideas like garment collection as a way to grow the company with limited resources."
This collection has itself been long in the making. The company works with external recycling facility I:CO on sorting the unwanted clothes, but currently relies on manual labour to wade through the heaps of clothing. Workers may even have to read the labels on clothing to determine the fabric - only pure cotton fibres may be recycled.
"We need to work with I:CO on developing technology that is not manual such as a digital method of sorting pure cotton garments from polyester ones," says Ms Tembe.
"Over 50 per cent of the garments go to the second-hand market and reusing is the most environmentally friendly way of repurposing a garment."
And H&M isn't the only fashion producer seeking out more sustainable means of production. This year, Levi's saved one billion litres of water through its sustainability initiatives, which includes working with cotton farmers on using less water through the Better Cotton Initiative, with the aim of sourcing 75 per cent Better Cotton by 2020. Topshop has also worked with I:CO and sent in 4,000kg of discarded garments through its parent company Arcadia that could be repurposed as second-hand clothing, donated to charities or recycled. It has also teamed up with eco fashion brand Reclaim To Wear to produce a new collection made from fabrics left over from production offcuts and surplus stock.
But H&M appears to be leading the pack in reducing the guilt of fast fashion shopping. As much as it is known for its affordable, trend-driven pieces, it has also been one of the frontrunners in sustainable fashion. For starters, it launched its first collection of organic cotton clothing, the rather unfortunately named Nature Calling collection, in 1993.
"Ecology was not a very big trend and we did natural, beige colours that didn't sell well, so we stopped after a few years," says Catarina Midby, the brand's sustainable fashion adviser.
"And then there was the big tsunami of 2004. A lot of Swedes were in Thailand and an entire family living in my block was wiped out in the tsunami. Climate change is real, and it affects all of us."
A collaboration with Stella McCartney the following year, during which organic cotton T-shirts were snapped up by consumers, spurred the brand to use more of the resource. Cotton, according to Ms Midby, is a "sweet" crop that is devoured by pests and the conventionally grown product uses more pesticide than any other crop. Hence, large consumers of the raw material have been looking to alternatives, and H&M is the second biggest buyer of organic cotton today (British retailer C&A has taken over the company's top spot). It also uses other sustainable materials throughout its product lines - after several seasons of a dedicated Conscious Collection that used purely sustainable materials.
And sustainability efforts don't take place only at the manufacturing stage. In fact, Ms Midby explains that 80 per cent of a garment's environmental impact begins during the design process. Due to the limitations in types of garments that could be recycled, designers have to plan ahead for the kinds of materials they choose such that they are recyclable, and determine a particular look and feel not purely by trend but by long-term environmental repercussions.
"The nature of denim is such that it washes out over time and a lot of denim nowadays is prewashed to create that hand-feel and look that you want," says Jon Loman, product designer for menswear and denim.
"The pieces in the Close The Loop collection are washed in a low impact way which benefits us and the suppliers as it means we can maximise resources. We need suppliers to also trust us that we are in it for the long term so they invest in machinery for low impact manufacturing, and even use it for making denim products for other brands as we want to be in the lead when it comes to what can be done for the environment."
This article was first published on September 5, 2015.
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