H&M Changes the Way It Recycles Clothing With Its "Close The Loop" Initiative

Recycling your old clothing at H&M has created an entirely new collection.

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There's been a lot of press highlighting the fact the fashion industry is a major part of our deteriorating environment, filling our landfills with "disposable" clothes. In part, it's the designs of labels like H&M that end up filling "rag yards," where donated and discarded clothes often end up. But H&M has decided to change that disposable clothing cycle—namely, through its "Close The Loop" initiative.

Starting next month, the megabrand will be unveiling 16 new denim-based pieces, all created out fabric obtained through H&M's Garment Clothing Initiative. Since 2013, H&M has invited shoppers to bring clothing from any brand (yes, any brand) in exchange for a discount on their next purchase. The point of the project is effectively "close the loop" of the clothes it produces, recycling old product into new gear. The initiative has culled over 14,000 tons of clothing across all the H&M's global retail locations.

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M, says of the project, "Creating a closed loop for textiles, in which unwanted clothes can be recycled into new ones, will not only minimize textile waste, but also significantly reduce the need for virgin resources as well as other impacts fashion has on our planet."

But the real question is, how are the clothes? Well, while the 16-piece collection also includes clothes for the ladies and for kids, the men's selection of gear consists of a zip-up denim jacket, a utility bomber, a pair of coated denim joggers, and—of course—two pairs of jeans.

We spoke directly to H&M's sustainability expert Cecilia Brännsten, to get the scoop on the brand's latest initiative, how the brand reuses the recycled clothing it receives, and why you should be proud to wear recycled cotton.

What would you say to people who might be hesitant about buying something made out of recycled cotton as opposed to ordinary cotton?
You should really be proud of wearing something made from recycled cotton or any other sustainable material. Here at H&M, we believe that using more sustainable material is the way of the future. Recycled materials, such as recycled cotton, can help change the way fashion is made and massively reduce the need for extracting virgin resources from our planet. By using recycled materials we also have a clear vision of minimizing the waste the goes into landfills. Our goal for this year is increase the number of pieces made with at least 20% recycled fabric from collected garments by more than 300% compared to 2014.

How do recycled and ordinary cotton differ?
Recycled and ordinary cotton don’t differ in touch or feel, so it is really difficult to tell whether it is made out of recycled fibers. However, it is currently only possible to blend in 20% recycled fibers from post-consumer waste in our garments without reducing the fabric quality. In the mechanical recycling procedure we use when recycling old garments, the textile fibers are being recycled in a fiber pulling machine (that tears the textile apart) in a way that makes the textile fibers shorter and of lower quality than untreated fiber. Therefore, the recycled fibers also need to be blended with untreated fibers to reach our high quality standards. 

14,000 tons of old clothes have been donated, walk me through what happens to those when they leave the store.
Up until today, we have actually collected 18.284.600 kilos in our stores globally. The process begins when our customers bring their old textiles (from any brand, in any condition) to H&M stores. These are exchanged for a discount voucher that the customer can then redeem on their next purchase. Next, when full, the I:CO containers are collected from our stores and brought to the nearest sorting plant. The textiles are then sorted and evaluated against over three hundred and fifty different criteria. Lastly, depending on conditions, the sorted items are put to a variety of different uses; re-wear, reuse and recycling. 

How does the recycling process work?
Used textiles contain valuable resources and all returned textiles are recycled, which means these materials are passed on to the most environmentally and economically advantageous kind of re-use. The items are categorized according to five areas of further use:

1. Re-wear: Clothing that is still suitable for wear is marketed worldwide as second hand goods. The resources contained in textiles should continue to be used in their original state for as long as possible.

2. Re-use: Textiles that are no longer suitable for wear are converted into other products such as cleaning cloths.

3. Up cycling: An existing product can be used to produce a new product of similar or greater value. This ensures that the components making up used textiles can be fully recycled. Upcycling creates closed-loop recycling, allowing materials to be endlessly recirculated whilst conserving resources. Recycled fibers can be recovered and used to produce new fabric.

4. Down cycling: Down cycling is when a material is no longer usable in its original form and with no up cycling method available, the material is then designated for down cycling. In this phase, the material is shredded and processed into new products such as thermal insulation.

5. Energy: When re-wear, re-use and recycle are not options, textiles are used to produce energy. 

On the H&M site, it says that the goal is to one day make 100 percent of products out of recycled cotton—as opposed to the 20 percent that is used now. What steps need to happen to get to that point?
There are certainly challenges on the road towards a closed loop for textiles. However, we are positive that we can overcome these challenges. To increase this share without losing quality, we need more technological innovation. We are working hard to overcome the challenge and we are investing in the innovation we need to create a closed loop. Currently, it is only possible to blend in 20% recycled fibers from post-consumer waste in our garments without reducing the fabric quality. In the mechanical recycling procedure we use when recycling old garments, the textile fibers are being recycled in a fiber pulling machine (that tears the textile apart). Our goal is to recycle as much as possible into new garments. For 2015, our target is to increase the number of pieces made with at least 20% recycled fabric from collected garments by more than 300% compared to 2014. 

What inspired H&M to initially launch the Close The Loop project?
Our size and our success put us in a position to push development in a positive direction. H&M was the first fashion company to launch a garment recycling initiative worldwide. We want to offer an easy solution for our customers to leave their old garments with H&M, and at the same time do something good for the environment. Short term, we have a clear vision to avoid waste and minimize the waste that goes into landfills. Long term, we want find a solution for reusing and recycling all textile fiber for new use. This can change the way fashion is made and massively reduces the need for extracting untreated resources from our planet. We want to create a closed loop for fashion, where used garments and textiles are converted into new fashion. This will reduce our dependence on new resources and take us a step in the right direction from a linear to a circular economy.

Do you know the amount of fabric and or resources that H&M has saved through this initiative to date?
For business reasons, we do not communicate such key figures, however, for 2014, 14% of the materials we used were organic, recycled or other innovative more sustainable materials. That is up 3% from previous years. 

What are some hurdles you face when launching a collection like this?
Some hurdles we have faced involve technical innovations as mentioned before.

Is there one big misconception out there when it comes to recycled cotton or this project in general?
We only see positive reactions from our customers when it comes to sustainable materials and we also see a growing demand for more sustainable products. We can also see that our customers want to learn more about sustainability and we want them to feel secure that the products at H&M are made with consideration to people as well as the environment. 

Are there celebrities championing this cause that H&M dreams of partnering with?
With all our marketing, we want to surprise our customers when showing our latest fashion. The choice of models or style icons are based on the portrayal of the current trends in an inspiring way.

As a brand that is known for accessible fashion, does H&M feel an extra responsibility to be more eco- friendly?
We are good at creating, discovering and following new influences in the fashion world, but we do not see ourselves as a fast fashion company. We do not consider ourselves to be a fast fashion brand. H&M offers fashion and quality at the best price, which means that our garments are good quality with a long lasting life. We see it as equally important and natural, that garments our customers no longer want are passed on to other people or recycled via our garment collecting initiative, similar to how siblings or friends pass clothing to and from one another. We can use our size and position as one of the world’s leading fashion brands to push sustainable development in a positive direction

What is the new company H&M has partnered with, Worn Again, looking to offer that doesn't exist yet?
We are currently involved in a number of different promising initiatives and projects. For example, together with Kering, we entered into a partnership with UK-based innovation company Worn Again, which is developing promising technologies for textile-to-textile recycling. Worn Again’s process is solvent based and it recaptures the polyester and cellulose, separates them, and then leaves behind other dyes and contaminants. The process itself is closed loop, so the solvents being used and the water and heat used in the process are put back into the system.

As one of the globe's largest retailers, it only makes sense that they'd do their part to help curb clothing waste. Starting Sept. 7, even the most environmentally conscious among us will have a reason to hit up their local H&M.

See more of the collection's men's pieces below.



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