There are some things you generally don’t hear mentioned in the same breath. Macarons and diet, for instance, or Ryan Gosling and the ugly stick. Or, where clothing is concerned, fast fashion and eco-friendliness. But while the first two pairs remain mutually exclusive for now, it isn’t necessarily so for the last.
“Many people have the perception that sustainability is something that costs a lot,” says Ann Gedda, head of sustainability at high-street giant H&M. “We want to show that sustainable fashion can be affordable and available to everyone. It’s not something that has to do with price – our products are produced in the same factories as other brands.”
The Swedish company ventured into eco-friendly fashion as early as 1995 with a basics line that had the rather unfortunate name of Nature Calling. Consumer interest in that faded quick, but picked up a decade later with an organic cotton collection created jointly with Stella McCartney (aka industry green fairy and an early advocate of sustainable fashion). A permanent organic cotton line soon followed and, in 2011, H&M launched its Conscious collection, focusing on everyday-friendly styles crafted from sustainable materials like recycled wool and polyamide, and organic leather, hemp and silk.
By this time – despite the likes of McCartney and her luxurious spin on eco fashion – the concept of dressing responsibly was still perceived largely as all-cotton totes, T-shirts and, at best, weekend gear. Enter Conscious Exclusive, introduced a year later as a red carpet line to prove that sustainability can apply to dressing up too. H&M’s creative advisor Anne-Sofie Johansson explains: “It’s a collection where we push the boundaries of what is possible to make using more sustainable fabrics and methods. We really want to show that beautiful clothes can be made in a greener way.”
Now into its fifth edition and launching at the brand’s Orchard Building flagship on April 7, this year’s Conscious Exclusive line was created in collaboration with Paris’ Musee des Arts Decoratifs, located at The Louvre. H&M is the contributor and exclusive sponsor of the “Fashion Forward – Three Centuries of Fashion” exhibition, which opens on the same day at the museum, and the brand’s design team got the chance to access its immense archives, which span centuries and provided a treasure trove of inspiration.
The influence of various eras is evident in the clothes. A majestic-looking collar-less coat, for example, was based on antique riding coats, its colour-block jacquard print said to be a nod to a hotchpotch of fabrics – the result is a little Chinese, and a little bit Byzantine. Demure lace blouses with high collars and matching A-line skirts channel Victorian dressing, while the romantic painterly prints on silk maxis, sleeveless tops and even drawstring shorts were taken from the classical works of French painter Gustave Moreau. Says Johansson: “This is quite an elegant and glamorous collection inspired by different decades of fashion, but at the same time, it has to be contemporary – quite cool almost – and feel effortless.” Prices start from $39.90 for a pair of sculptural drop earrings to $399 for a black tie-worthy embroidered gown.
What’s most impressive, though, is how recycled or sustainable textiles continue to feature heavily. The list runs from recycled polyester and plastic, to organic silk and Tencel, a fabric made from wood cellulose. In addition, this collection boasts two breakthrough materials: decorative glass beads partially derived from recycled glass, and Denimite, which is made from recycled denim, feels like plastic (read: it’s ultra light), looks like a cross between stone and marble, and so hardy it won’t break. The brand is reportedly the first fashion company to use the latter in its production, creating two styles of drop earrings with an edgy, ethnic feel.
Says Gedda: “A really important aspect of the Conscious Exclusive collection is to try and test new innovative materials like Denimite. These may not be readily available or affordable to buy in large volumes for now, but if we start to use it, we can increase demand, and therefore supply, ultimately making it cheaper for everyone in the industry to buy them. It’s a really good way to drive the development of materials forward.”
The brand isn’t limiting its sustainability efforts to its Conscious lines either. Overall, raw materials such as linen, silk, hemp and cotton – all organic and bought from sustainable sources – make up about 20 per cent of all materials used, and its goal is to keep upping that number. The company also works with recycled materials (think polyester made from PET bottles) because it means less water, energy and chemicals are needed during the production process (read: less waste). Fun fact: For some time now, H&M has also been one of the world’s biggest buyers of organic cotton.
Moving forward, the brand is gunning for a “closed loop for textiles”. That basically means being able to turn all unwanted garments into new creations – clothing or otherwise – without using any extra material. To do that, the brand hopes to rope in arguably the industry’s most important group of players – us, the consumers. Says Gedda: “A really important step towards a closed loop is ensuring that fashion doesn’t end up as waste – that was the backbone of how we started our global garment collecting programme in 2013.”
Under it, customers can deposit their unwanted clothing or textiles (yep, even if they’re not from H&M) at any of the brand’s stores in a drop-off box located next to the payment counter. Each bag of clothing donated gets you a discount voucher for 15 per cent off a single item, with a maximum of two vouchers per person a day. Last year alone, the brand collected over 12,000 tonnes of garments worldwide – roughly equivalent to 61 million tees.
“I think the key to success in raising awareness and building knowledge about sustainability is to actually involve the customers,” says Gedda. “Not only to inform them, but also to engage them and make them a part of the solution, so that they can actually contribute to something positive, and not feel that they’re the ones causing a problem.”