H&M’s Conscious Collection: More Than Just Talk? A Conversation on Fast Fashion and Sustainability

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Fast fashion is on its way out. Well, not completely.  But the milestone meeting, which occurred Thursday at the Vogue headquarters, “Conscious Talk,” gathered together a dynamic group of individuals to discuss how to move the fashion industry into a sustainable future. 

Sponsored by H&M, a knowledgeable spread of panelists from across the eco-fashion sector met to talk about sustainability and fashion. Panelists in attendance included fashion consultant Julie Gilhart, Loomstate founder Scott Mackinlay Hahn, Ecouterre managing editor Jasmin Malik Chua, Carmen Artigas the dean of ethical fashion at the Center for Social Innovation, and Honest By’s Bruno Pieters.  Representing H&M were Helena Helmersson, H&M’s global head of sustainability, and Catarina Midby, global head of fashion and sustainability communication.

Moderated by Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School of Design, the discussion opened the question: “If we are going to do anything about moving towards sustainability do we need a revolution?” (See video of the conversation below).

Everyone agreed yes. With new technologies, as Hahn remarked, these changes can come about.  Gilhart believed it was the younger generation that would lead the change in industry.  “The younger generation is coming up and is more educated. Smart companies are going to be thinking about the future. They’ll be ready,” said panelist and fashion consultant Julie Gilhart. Chua knows our consumption patterns have to shift. “[Consumption] has to change. It’s more cost effective when you think about it, do you buy a pair of shoes that last ten years or do you buy a pair of shoes every year for ten years? Obviously, the first one is going to save you money.”

The difference of selling to customers and engaging the customer is also important as Chua noted.  Gilhart, seconded this by saying when customers are engaged with a store, they trust and feel comfortable with the label and it then becomes their go-to place to shop. Mending programs are also a great way to keep people connected with their clothing and keep the garment in their closet longer. Helmersson, says H&M has been working on increasing the durability of their garments.  And new incentive of take-back schemes, occurring in stores like Patagonia and H&M, allows customers to bring their unwanted garments to the store to receive a voucher.

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It was no coincidence that the discussion coincided with the release of H&Ms “Conscious Collection” and new line “Conscious Exclusive,” of eco-friendly sophisticated, flirty dresses. Helmersson, H&M’s global director of sustainability said, “We need to use our stores and website to communicate that we now have conscious labels,” said Helmersson.  But calling their collection Conscious, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Especially when sitting next to people like Pieters and Hahn, who have thoroughly thought through what sustainability means for them and their label.

Artigas noted the “scripted answers” given by H&Ms representatives, like washing clothes with cold water, and making sure no textile goes into a landfill, couldn’t be ignored that perhaps the event was just a PR stunt.

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Regardless of H&M’s surface intentions, real questions were posed by panelist such as Chua, Pieters and Hahn, leaders in sustainable fashion.

For example, the emotional connections we have to fashion was talked out.  Studies show people think first about what they want, and then what is right. “People won’t always do the right thing,” she said, “but they’ll always do the easy thing. Our challenge is making the right thing the easy thing.”  Chua pointed out that it is the industry’s responsibility to give consumers choices which make it easier for them to do the right thing.

H&M, through the Conscious Collection, is trying to create awareness at an affordable price. Even if is simply an PR stunt, the conversation has opened up into the mainstream. People are becoming more knowledgeable that fast in fashion, like food, isn’t working. “Conscious Talk” is just the talk, but H&M, as largest buyer of organic cotton and their recent publication of their factory list in the 2012 sustainability report, is trying to walk the walk.  Through pioneering steps like these, the industry can follow suit.

The question still arises of a transparent supply chain: Are workers paid and treated fairly? The faint-ins which occurred this September, a public demonstration where people pretended to faint inside H&M, Gap and Zara stores around the world, was a step in bringing awareness to the issue of garment workers fainting inside factories due to low caloric intake and long hours.

When Ecouterre asked H&M Thursday, if they had plans to increase supply chain transparency, they said they could never be as transparent as a company like Honest By. “We are a big company and our collection is equally large and diverse, so we must go about it a little differently,” said Midby.

The industry and consumers, which include all of us, still have a long way to go to reduce consumption and increase quality. But regardless, the revolutionary message on thoughtful consumption is making its way up to the top of the fashion industry.

This panel discussion was unprecedented in bringing together big names and big ideas. It might be safe to claim we can start to say goodbye to fast fashion and thoughtless consumption, and hello to a smarter, more conscious future.

In the end, “fashion is about being cool.” Chua says, “and we need to make sustainability cool.”

Related: Billionaire CEOs and Slave Labor: The Real Price of Cheap Fashion

Photographer: Camilla Akrans

 

About Juliette Donatelli
Growing up between New York and Paris, Juliette Donatelli developed a deep love for culture, style and the beat of the city. She's the founder of spades+siLK, where she writes about the exciting new trends fusing sustainability and fashion. She has lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but recently moved back to NYC to be part of all that is happening around local manufacturing and design. Juliette holds a MS in Ecology, and a BA in Globalization and Environmental Science. She is currently writing a book on sustainability in a material world.

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