IN SEARCH OF MORAL FIBRE

By Teisha Deckker

H&M Conscious Exclusive 2017, modelled by Natalia Vodianova

H&M Conscious Exclusive 2017, modelled by Natalia Vodianova

I recently found myself with a spare 20 minutes on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD and thought I’d suss out H&M’s sustainable clothing line.

I’d read about the 2017 iteration of the “Conscious Exclusive” collection. This year, the fast fashion giant’s premium environmentally responsible offering comprises pieces made from sustainable materials (including polyester recycled from shoreline waste and sequins with 70 per cent recycled plastic content) and takes “beauty” and the “sensual world” as inspiration. It launched with great fanfair in May, with a campaign starring Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

I could see myself in this pink sequined dress.

Natalia Vodianoa H&M

Strolling into the welcoming warmth of the well-lit store, I expected to see signage emblazoned with the virtues of this collection. Or perhaps posters of models gaily frolicking about in guilt-free threads, smiling their support for sustainable fashion. And yet there were none.

The Conscious Exclusive Mesh Shopper made from recycled polyester is still available.

The Conscious Exclusive Mesh Shopper made from recycled polyester is still available.

I continued into the depths, winding my way through what seemed like endless rails of clothes. Still nothing obviously sustainable in sight. Presumably the Exclusive sequins had sold out - H&M is transparent about the fact that it's a limited edition, available in just a couple of hundred stores - but surely, if they're so committed to sustainability, there ought to a lot more product available that sends a clear message about their eco ethos.

I'd heard about the green "Conscious" tags used on a wider range of H&M product that denote sustainable fabric, but I couldn't find any.  

I continued right to the back of the store. Did this stuff even exist? It had been 17 minutes. My search had proved fruitless. My friend was out the front and my time was up.

Might H&M’s sustainable collections be more elusive than exclusive?

A Spring '17 Conscious Exclusive gown made from shoreline waste

A Spring '17 Conscious Exclusive gown made from shoreline waste

The first Conscious collection launched in Spring 2011 with a range of 56 styles for women. It followed the earlier Garden collection that pioneered recycled cotton use. Back then H&M operated 2,472 stores in 43 markets across the globe.

Today, the Conscious Exclusive range includes apparel and accessories for women, relaxed formal wear for men, and a children’s line. But H&M produces garments in the hundreds of millions annually, so whilst this collection is expanding, it still only accounts for a fun-size fraction of their total output. 

I’m not the only customer to voice frustration over its drop-in-the ocean aspect. There's a tension here that’s hard to reconcile, because while H&M is vocal in its leadership on things like circularity (they were among the first to introduce in store garment recycling bins, and produce a recycled denim collection, for example, and they pump money into their Global Change Award which rewards sustainable textile innovation from start-ups and scientists), they also lead in overproduction. They sell A LOT of clothes. In 2017, there are more than 4,600 H&M stores, in 66 markets.

Companies like H&M thrive on the shortened trend cycle, which sees more clothes produced, more sold, and more discarded.

The fast fashion model is built on the premise of planned obsolescence. We know that rapid and repetitive consumption is to the detriment of the planet. And some of us feel bad about it. But mostly not bad enough to stop consuming! Just bad enough to slightly modify our spending habits to achieve the perceived win-win of buying something “sustainable”, right?

“Conscious Exclusive” is a gesture in the right direction, but it isn’t enough.