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Can fast fashion ever be sustainable? Will circularity fundamentally change things? How about supply chain transparency, collaboration and pumping resources into textile innovation? Is all this eclipsed by the shadow of overproduction?

Swedish giant H&M is the second biggest clothing company in the world (the first is Inditex/Zara.) The H&M Group comprises the H&M brand, and a string of others including: COS, & Other Stories, jeans brand Cheap Monday, and hyper-transparent newcomer Arket.

H&M was founded in Vasteras in 1947. In the '90s and 2000s, it became synonymous with 'fast fashion', and, therefore, with the business model's associated problems: low cost clothing, sold in very large volumes. H&M sees this low cost as a plus—framing it in terms of accessibility and democratising fashion. But they also centre sustainability in their mission statement. They've set a goal to use to use "100 % recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030".

They say: "The H&M Group is all about sustainable fashion and design. We’re not just about the now: we’re about the future. The future of the company, and the future of the planet. This requires long-term thinking, delivering not only on the customers’ needs of today but also those of tomorrow—for generations to come. That means not only using resources sparingly and mindfully, but also re-using them, and constantly work with innovation within these areas. "

2018 Conscious Exclusive collection

2018 Conscious Exclusive collection

They also say that their size allows them to scale things like the use of circular fabrics in order to make change in a big way.  They introduced organic linen and recycled silver, for example, in this year's Conscious Exclusive collection, and increased their use of sustainable Tencel.

However, the flip side is that they produce enormous amounts of product, at a time when many argue that we should be slowing down. The group has 4800 stores, and produces millions of garments annually, part of a trend that's seen global fashion production roughly double between 2000 and 2015.

On the supply chain side, H&M emphasises that it doesn't own its factories—almost no big brands do. But the modern industry's increasingly complex and opaque global supply chains are central to the problem of workers being exploited. That said, H&M has come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to transparency. And they're always at the table when it comes to discussing ways to make fashion more sustainable - they are founding members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, support the Higg Index and are working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

So, lots to think, and talk, about...

Clare caught up with Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at the H&M Group since 2015, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit to ask about the company’s approach to sustainability across its brands. 

Anna Gedda

Anna Gedda

"We want to be and be seen as leaders in the industry; that we are making big goals in order to work toward a more sustainable fashion future. We want to lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion while being a fair and equal company." - Anna Gedda



The H&M Foundation is a charitable a non-profit foundation, privately funded by the Stefan Persson family, founders and main owners of H&M group.

The Global Change Award is a prize, funded by the H&M Foundation, for early stage innovations that seek to make fashion circular. They say,"The applications explore the possibilities in a broad range of areas, from biomimicry, nano-materials and robotics to connected supply chains, wearables and bio-based materials. Interestingly, most solutions are coming from innovators outside of the fashion industry."

In 2018's competition, new gen fabrics derived from algae and mushrooms, and Smart Stitch, an intriguing Belgian innovation: a thread that dissolves at high temperatures to make recycling easier. No more unpicking! Australian innovation "Denim Dyed Denim" made the cut last year. Scientists from Deakin University have developed a system for pulverising old denim to make a pigment and using it to "dye" new denim with digital printers. The process uses much less water than conventional dyeing processes and returns waste denim to the system, closing the loop.



By 2020, H&M group aims to use 100% sustainable cotton

By 2030, H&M group aims to use 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials in its products.

By 2040, H&M group aims to have a climate positive value chain 

Can they do it?

In 2017 59% of its cotton was from sustainable resources (certified organic, recycled or Better Cotton), up from 43% the previous year. Also in 2017, 84 % of H&M's business partner factories are in compliance with wastewater quality requirements as defined by BSR. All good stuff. The climate positive piece seems like a bigger stretch. How do they calculate that? The aim is to reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than it will emit through the value chain. According to their 2017 Sustainability Report, they reduced emissions from their own operations by 21% last year. But how on earth to extend that to their more 1668 factories & suppliers they work with? And what about all those air-miles transporting materials and products around the world?



GARMENT COLLECTION. The first H&M garment collection program began in 2011. It was extended into stores globally in 2013. In 2017, the group collected the equivalent of 89 million T-shirts - customers can donate any clothing, there are no brand requirements - via its in-store recycling bins. They work with  I:CO  to sort them. HOWEVER, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than 1 per cent of the clothing collected (by all stakeholders, not just H&M) is currently recycled into new clothing, so there's obviously a big gulf between what we're hoping for, and what's actually happening right now...

OVERPRODUCTION. First things first: this company is big. The H&M brand alone has 800 million customer transactions per year. Anna says they can keep growing by taking more market share, but overproduction is the elephant in the room.

FASHION WASTE. In March 2018, H&Ms quarterly report revealed unsold stock worth $4.3 billion, prompting the NYT to note, "The scale of the problem illustrates H&M’s vast size — as one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers, it produces hundreds of millions of items each year. There are so many that a power plant in Vasteras, the town where H&M founded its first store, relies partly on burning defective products the retailer cannot sell to create energy."

The broader industry's waste problem has been in the news this month, with Burberry admitting to destroying millions of pounds worth of unsold stock. Did you listen to our show with Parsons sustainability professor Timo Rissanen from Series 1. Timo explains how as much as a third of all the fashion produced annually is never sold.

TRANSPARENCY. H&M's published supplier list includes the details of tier 1 factories for 98.5% of their products and tier 2 factories for 60% of products. This is pretty good headway considering, as Anna says in this interview, that she remembers when they used to keep their supplier lists locked in a safe. H&M group was in the top 5 best performing companies listed by Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index 2018.

A note on our MUSIC: it is by our friend Montaigne, who sang a special acoustic version of "Because I love You" just for us. It's from her album Glorious Heights.


Until next time,

Clare x