Companies / Aziende,  Fabrics/Tessuti,  Fashion/Moda,  Recycling/Riciclo

H&M’s machine recycles used clothes in 5 hours: is this sustainable fast fashion?

The fast fashion Swedish brand H&M has found a way to avoid old clothes to be thrown away, but instead recycled to give them a new life. All of this, in just 5 hours!

The brand will give the opportunity to clients to go to their Stockholm shop where they will be able to return their undesired clothes, which will then be sanitised and put inside a new machine called Looop. The machine will disassemble the fibres that will be reutilized to create new clothing items. H&M stated for CNN that these recycling process, developed together with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and spinner company Novetex Textiles, can work with multiple items at the same time, it will not use water nor chemical products, and it will seldomly need the addition of raw materials of “sustainable origin”, however they hope to keep such additions to a minimum.

A technology that seems innovative and with a lot of potential, but we decided to delve deeper into this story with Ariele Elia, Assistant Director at Fashion Law Institute of Fordham Law University and member of the Fashion Studies Alliance.

Sostenibilità H&M

The biggest issue is that you can’t recycle all garments and there is not a system that can separate a lot of fabric blends. like a polyester or synthetic material”, says Ariele. “What happens with a lot of those plastics is when you’re starting to shred them it actually melts the fibre, so if they’re talking about recycling wool fibres and cotton fibres that’s fine but what most of the things that H&M actually produces it’s usually blended with some kind of stretch in it. It’s great for 100% wool sweater that can be recycled but if it has any kind of stretch or synthetic in it you probably can’t recycle it”.

Besides the 5 hours needed to complete the transformation, the clients will be able to observe the full process of it thanks to the fact that the machine Looop is in full display in the store surrounded by transparent glass.
At a price ranging from 11 to 16 dollars the clients can also choose between turning their old garments into either a scarf, a baby blanket or a sweater.

H&M stated that the proceeds will be invested in the research and innovation to help the brand reach their goal of having 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

Due to the reputation of the Swedish brand and especially due to their fast fashion business model that is by now rooted in their company for many years now, we take such claim with much caution, as suggested also by Ariele:

They are making some change and I think it is admirable that they’re trying to come up with this recycling system and I think that the money they’re putting into the technology is great. However, I always come back to the fact that with fast fashion the fact that you are mass producing that much is not sustainable. Despite all of the different initiatives and conscious fact that the machine Looop is in full display surrounded by transparent glass in brands or conscious collections that you create you still can’t be sustainable”.

We have also involved Sarah Byrd, fashion historian, archivist, and member of Fashion United Alliance. Sarah suggests a different perspective on this new machine and brand’s objective. She highlighted the fact that every clothing item will only be able to be recycled into a scarf, baby blanket or sweater.

For what is worth, I don’t think producing new anything is ever truly sustainable and this seems like more downcycling (ndr: that reuses a material creating a product with a lower value than the original) than recycling. Buying less and taking care of what you have already is one of the most realistic steps people can take towards sustainability, says Sarah.

To this, Ariele Elia added that besides producing new clothing items, the issue of quality also needs to be considered:

Sostenibilità H&M

What a lot of people don’t recognise is that when you recycle fibres, they are not virgin anymore, so the quality of it is very inferior and I think people expect whatever you put out to be exactly what you’re going to get back”.

Besides offering this alternative option, the Swedish brand has said that allowing customers to visualize and witness this closed loop approach to recycling will encourage more people to think about the actual value of what they wear.

For now this machine is only available in their Stockholm store and it isn’t clear whether the multinational brand has an expansion plan.

In conclusion, this new machine created by H&M in trying to find new sustainable solutions is certainly noteworthy. If they decide to license out the system to other brands, this technology would then be able to be replicated on a larger scale. Moreover, the energy and economical resources invested in Looop, that would consequentially have a big impact on the fashion world, is undoubtedly admirable.

To truly assess the value of this new technology we will need to check on it both in the short and long-term.

Nevertheless, the business model and low-cost production the company is deeply rooted to is not sustainable. And regardless of how many initiatives or conscious collections they make, they will never be able to undo or redeem themselves from the damages made by their mass production.

The fast recycling of an increasingly rapid fashion (and consumption) is not THE solution to the negative impact of the production and consumption system in the sector.

We at Dress Ecode will keep following the developments on this new machine and will keep you informed on other H&M’s actions.

Riccardo Zazzini

Photos: Fernand De Canne, Ksenia Chernaya.

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