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How effective are H&M’s circularity efforts?

By Simone Preuss

19 Feb 2021

For quite a few years, fast fashion brand H&M has been collecting discarded garments in its stores worldwide. However, questions arose as to what H&M was doing with all these garments (29,005 tons in 2019 alone) as it was not possible to turn all of them into new clothes. Mixed materials, like cotton and polyester blends, which is what many fast fashion garments are made of, posed a challenge. Since then, technology has improved, with H&M using its in-store recycling machine Looop and its Green Machine that separates cotton and polyester blends through a hydrothermal process to become more circular.

“Mixed fabrics are harder to separate by fibre, and consequently, harder to recycle back into new garments. … The challenge we tasked ourselves with was to find technology that could separate recycled garments at fibre level, including blended fabrics; a solution that would allow us to use even the trickiest of recycled textiles to their fullest – down to the very last thread,” recalls H&M the journey in a statement on Thursday.

Circulose

The Group’s goal is to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 in its collections. Its strategy to achieve this goal rests on three pillars: Apart from Looop and the Green Machine, its collaboration with Swedish textile recycling firm Re:newcell, which uses a new technique to recycle used cotton, viscose and other cellulosic fibers into a sustainable dissolving pulp, resulting in the newly patented Circulose material.

A year ago, the brand introduced the first garment made out of Circulose - a dress consisting of 50 percent Circulose from recycled jeans and 50 percent viscose from FSC-certified wood (see above). In the future, the H&M Group plans to use Circulose in “millions of garments”. This sounds impressive but given that the company makes about 3 billion garments a year, it is rather a drop in the bucket until they decide to make billions of garments out of it.

Looop

H&M started its in-store recycling machine Looop in its Drottninggatan flagship store in Stockholm on 12th October 2020 (see below). In eight steps, the machine transforms old garments into new ones, from washing them to knitting the new yarn into new clothes, all without water or chemicals. “The system recaptures valuable raw materials in recycled clothing and regenerates them back into fibres that are spun into new yarn and knitted into new clothes,” explains H&M the process that takes about five hours.

“It is important to let our customers be part of our journey and to show them the value of textiles and at the same time, inspire them to prolong the lifetime of their garments. Looop is a good way to visualize that and a great forum to pay attention to H&M Group’s other recycling and repair initiatives. Looop is not the whole solution but an important part of our journey to become a circular business,“ adds Felicia Reuterswaerd, sustainability manager at H&M Sweden.

Though this all sounds good, the process is slow and how many of these machines would it take to really make a difference? Right now, it just seems like a gimmick for H&M customers who want to dump their old clothes and clear their conscience before buying more of the same.

In addition, Looop does not run on old clothes alone. Already by the third step (after washing and shredding the old fabric), new material is added to “strengthen the material”. Currently, H&M does not specify the exact proportion of old and new, only that the company is working on making this part “as small as possible”.

The Green Machine

Last but not least, there is the Green Machine, which seems the most promising of the H&M Group’s circularity efforts. It was developed through a research collaboration between the H&M Foundation and The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and one of Monki’s key suppliers.

Through a hydrothermal process, the recycling machine separates cotton and polyester blends from one another in a closed cycle, without quality loss and at industrial scale. It uses heat, water and less than five percent biodegradable chemicals to recycle large quantities of clothing. “The Green Machine is a real game-changer for upcycling blend fabrics in the brand’s production,” says H&M. Monki offered the first garments made using this new technology, a grey hoodie and matching sweatpants, at the end of last year.

“In order to close the loop, we need to be able to upcycle the recycled clothes at scale. That’s nothing new, but the ability to do this requires a technical revolution. The fact that we can use this machine in our production means that we can break the scale barrier and solve one of the issues that we must overcome to learn more about circularity,“ adds Jenny Fagerlin, Monki’s sustainability and transformation director.

In summary, the H&M Group wants to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 in its brands’ collections and become fully circular and climate positive by 2040 - that is almost 20 years by now. Until then, it will matter how 3 billion garments annually are produced and when that number will be cut down - if ever.

Images: H&M