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H&M ploughs reclaimed cotton into new styles

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An item from the Conscious Collection. Photo: H&M
17:12 CEST+02:00
Swedish clothing retailers H&M said on Thursday it had collected five tonnes of used clothing, with a new collection of jeans made from 20 percent recycled fibres. But the company also admitted ethical dilemmas ahead.

H&M announced last year that it would start to encourage its fans to hand in old items of clothing they no longer used, rather than tossing them in the garbage. A year later, some of the reclaimed cotton has made its way into new styles.

"We have found a way to use the cotton fibres in our clothing," said sustainability head Helena Helmersson. "We've made denim clothing where 20 percent of the fibres come from recycled items."

The Swedish firm admitted, however, that it had hoped to reach a higher recycled content.

"Unfortunately we did not manage to fulfil our demands on quality with a higher proportion than that," Helmerson explained. 

The more sustainable off-shoot of H&M's many in-house diffusion lines  - called simply Conscious Collection - has used some material taken from recycled plastic bottles. Leather items have been put together with hides from cattle reared organically for meat production. 

IN PICTURES:  The latest designs in H&M's Conscious Collection

On Thursday, the recycling issue was addressed as part of the company's broader annual report on sustainability. Just like other large-scale retailers, H&M has faced criticism for not doing enough to secure the welfare of employees in the textile industry. The company responded last year by stating that at least 60 percent of workers who supplied H&M with items would be given salaries that secured a decent standard of living.

The company has not, however, specified what a living wage entailed, reported the TT news agency on Thursday. A recent H&M review into textile-worker salaries in Cambodia and Bangladesh found that the average staff member cannot live on their current wage. 

Tola Moeun, human rights expert at the organization CLEC in Cambodia, also noted that raising salaries had not been enough.

"Higher inflation has increased living expenses for the workers, at the same time as the salaries remain low," he told Sveriges Radio. 

Several trade unions in Cambodia have now demanded that the new minimum wage be set at 160 dollars a month rather than the current level of 100, noted Swedish observer Brittis Edman at Civil Rights Defenders. 

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"Increasing the minimum wage was positive, but from what people tell me, 100 dollars doesn't go far to cover people's needs," she told TT. 

H&M, which is set to begin production in Ethiopia, has asked both Sida, Sweden's state agency that allocates and project manages aid, and the International Labour Organization for help in making sure they can find subcontractors who respect workers' right to free association, in other words who are unionized. 

"A challenge in Ethiopia is industrial relationships, negotiations between employers and employees, and another (challenge) is that there is no legal minimum wage," Helmersson at H&M said. 

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