If I had to pick my favorite European country, it would be Sweden, where Alfred Nobel manufactured dynamite, where Basshunter recorded his debut album, where Jonny Johansson gave away his first hundred pair of jeans before Acne swept Europe with its awkward but extremely beautiful fashion silhouettes. But its most important contribution to the world to date might just be the export of ‘fast fashion’ – made a norm by Hennes & Mauritz, or better known as H&M.
Early this spring, H&M launched an initiative to collect old clothes from customers in exchange for vouchers. Basically, for every bag of old clothing you bring in, you get £5 off your next purchase of over £30 – it is actually a very attractive deal. I don’t know what others do with their unwanted clothes, but I usually go knocking on the doors of Heart Foundation and Cancer Research. And the UK is really doing well – we have contributed over 160,000 kilos of old clothes, which is 35% more than France.
I would say this initiative is fairly classic Sweden; Swedish people recycle 96% of their waste – they have run out of trash, as they have to import 80,000 tons from Norway to burn as fuel every year. But then, I must argue that this move is too little, too late. Since the age of Benetton the face of fashion has evolved dynamically. Clothes are no longer made to be durable; instead, it has grown to become a sort of disposable good. The success of GAP, Esprit and others in the nineties paved the way for today’s fast fashion giants H&M, Zara, Forever 21 and Arcadia group. The moment when one is convinced to fill his or her wardrobe with same shirts of different colours rather than one quality shirt is when the industry truly changed forever.
Thanks to H&M for pointing out that 95% of disposed textiles could be recycled, we now know how wasteful we really are. But then, we must also acknowledge that the amount of resources drawn to satisfy our demand are not negligible at all: to make an average pair of washed jeans, almost 3,000 litres of water is consumed – half used to grow the cotton needed (denim is a thick and complexly structured fabric) and the other used to perform the wash; and as much as it has gone unnoticed, raw materials such as cotton as peaked in April 2011 as a record high due to scarcity, triggering deep anxiety in the industry. Although such an unprecedented initiative is made out of good intentions, one must question its effectiveness in reducing waste in general.
Furthermore, such a campaign would divert one’s attention to the questionable nature of H&M as a fashion retailer. The business structure of H&M is built especially to cut lead times, risks and production costs: the fashion house outsources suppliers, factories which gives it advantage over cost but not control over quality; it also employs over one hundred designers to come up with new collections in response to immediate market trends, in order to re-stock shelves with in over 53 markets frequently to stimulate demand. I do not question H&M’s commitment to sustainability and the environment, but its business nature brings a cynical taste to the campaign.
Despite all that, I am going to bring in my first bag of clothes next week. I believe that, as naive as the campaign sounds, it shouldn’t stop us from trying to change the face of fashion once again. I have a good feeling about H&M and its direction in the future: if it were clever enough to achieve success through fast fashion, it would also be able to come up with a way out. After all, the people that run the business are Swedish – the great nation of IKEA, ABBA, soundcloud and Zlatan Ibrahimović – who are all innovative in their own ways. And from today onwards, we should start to treat fashion differently, before it lies in ruins in the hands of ignorant fashion-lusters.
words and photos by Justin Chan, Razz Fashion Correspondent