As expected at large conferences, all attendees of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit were given a goodie bag upon their arrival at the Opera house (on April 24, 2014). But, what was actually in the goodie bag at this year’s Summit? Apart from some eco-oriented beauty products from Danish Tromborg, there was also a pillow case from H&M (see photo below).
But was this gift of H&M really “good” from a sustainability perspective? Please bear in mind that the ambition of the CF Summit is to raise awareness of the sustainability challenges facing today’s fashion industry, and a particular purpose of this year’s Summit was to discuss and show concrete solutions for the industry. Naturally, one would expect the gifts at the CFS to demonstrate high level of sustainability competence and best-practice in the field. Thus, taking a critical look at this pillow case from H&M, was the product really a good example of best practice? Here are some important “rights” and “wrongdoings” embedded in the design and manufacturing of the gift.
The “right doings” of H&M
+ Organic cotton
Choosing organic cotton as the main fabric is obviously a better alternative than conventional cotton. There are significant differences between organic and conventional cotton, as listed by Green Cotton, primarily in terms of water and agro-chemical use during cultivation and the subsequent risk of water, air and soil pollution, biodiversity loss, and human health hazards.
+ Made in Turkey
Selecting a manufacturing plant in a country with stricter environmental regulations and controls, such as Turkey, is clearly a better alternative than choosing a factory in countries where regulations are more easily overlooked and neglected, such as in Bangladesh, China or Indonesia.
The “mistakes” of H&M
– Not “on demand”
How many of the over 1 000 persons who attended the CF Summit and received the gift will actually appreciate it and keep it for use? The design may be trendy to some, but I personally wouldn’t define it as mainstream or “stylish” in the classic sense. Of the six persons of different ages and gender that I tried to pass it on to, no one wished to accept it as a gift. For how many of the attendants did it suit their style preferences and meet their needs? In fact, none of the thousand participants had asked for a pillow case, nor been questioned about their taste of style. As a result, thousand pillow cases may have been manufactured for no use, and may directly end up as landfill, be incinerated, or put away in a closet. How much water, energy and chemicals were used in their production, and what were their main environmental impacts? Let’s hope that the pillow cases are successfully passed on to relatives or friends, or given to charities, if not happily kept by the owners. Yet, the final destination of a pillow case when given to charity is rarely certain.
– Using a mixture of materials
Designing a pillow case by mixing biological (e.g. cotton) and man-made materials (e.g. plastic prints and polyester thread) is in essential contrast to the fundamental principle of circular economy referred to as “Design for disassembly”. According to the EllenMacArthur Foundation, who is a central global advocator of a circular economy and cradle-to-cradle design, consideration to products’ end-of-life should be taken already at the design stage, by designing products that can easily be disassembled for repair, remake, reuse and recycling. Companies should thus either design products that can be easily disassembled at the product’s end-of-life. Or they should design products that are made solely of ONE type of material, e.g. only cellulosic (biodegradable) components, or only polyester (recyclable) material. In this latter case, the product is made up exclusively of one material type, which makes it unnecessary to separate different component types before recycling. The choice of H&M to mix different components in the pillow case, i.e. cotton fabric, plastic-like prints, and metal and polyester (or nylon) components for the zipper, was thus the most surprising choice. This is particularly remarkable since H&M has a clear and officially stated ambition to support progress towards a circular economy, and is also part of Circular Economy 100 as a corporate member.
A much better choice for H&M would have been to design a pillow case made completely out of biological material. For example, H&M could have used organic linen/hemp/wool, Tencel, or recycled cotton for the fabric; organic cotton for the thread; and wooden-derived material as buttons (instead of a zipper of metal and polyester or nylon). (For a comparison of different fiber alternatives, see MadeBy’s environmental benchmark table). Obviously, the choice of plastic-like printing on the pillow case was the biggest mistake, as the print cannot be ripped off before material recycling unlike the zipper. Mechanical recycling of cotton is today an established industry, although still quite limited in scale. Mechanically recycled cotton is in fact used by H&M in a recently launched denim collection (of five pieces), which to 20 percent is made out recycled cotton from their own garment collection (“Don’t Let Fashion Go to Waste”). Yet, with a plastic-like print on the textile, it is difficult – if not impossible – to mechanically recycle the cotton fiber of the H&M pillow case. Choosing one type of material for the whole pillow case should have been a perfect opportunity for H&M to demonstrate their consistency of work in the sustainability field, and their understanding of the fundamental principles of a circular economy. Hopefully, H&M will learn from these mistakes and integrate their lessons into H&M’s future design and manufacturing practices.
Design principles of a circular economy
According to circular economy, there is no such thing as waste. Instead, all components and materials used in society should be reused (directly or through remake) and finally recycled to the greatest extent possible, at best 100 percent. Reuse and recycling at high level are made possible by viewing all material components as either one of two main types, i.e. biological and technical (man-made) components (see diagram below). These components are hence treated separately, primarily by designing products in such a way that the various components of the products can be easily repaired, remade, reused, and disassembled for recover at their end-of-life. The following quote by Colin Webster (2013) describes this fundamental design practice:
“In order for manufacturers to repair and remanufacture products in the circular economy, and recover biological and technical materials, products will need to be designed from the outset for disassembly. This requires a radical overhaul of the design process, with consideration paid to how components will separate, how the user will upgrade (if desirable and possible), and what the component pieces could become next.”