You’ll be able to buy clothes made from pineapple leaves, orange peels, and algae by walking into select H&M stores starting April 11.
No, the clothes won’t rot on your body — in fact, they represent the company’s growing shift toward sustainability, according to Vogue.
For the brand’s ninth Conscious Exclusive line, it’s partnering with three companies that make clothing materials from organic materials that would otherwise go to waste.
Piñatex makes a vegan leather alternative out of pineapple leaves that would otherwise be thrown away. Orange Fiber makes a silk alternative out of orange peels that similarly get tossed after the fruit is pulped. And BLOOM Foam makes a foam for shoe soles out of algae biomass that helps to control harmful algae blooms.
H&M has earned a reputation for experimenting with left-field materials.
“I’ve actually always been a fan of H&M's Conscious collection because it’s a really cool way for them to promote these sustainable products and test them out,” Alden Wicker, a journalist who writes about sustainable fashion, told Global Citizen. “They’ve taken some of the things that they’ve tested in the past and used them across the rest of their lines later, like organic cotton or recycled polyester.
Read More: 5 Apps Helping to End Hunger and Food Waste
“They seem to be investing in every promising textile technology that’s out there,” she added.
Wicker pointed out that the the fibers, while better than the status quo, have some drawbacks. For example, all of them use finishing chemicals that prevent them from being biodegradable or recyclable.
“When you see some sort of plant waste being turned into a textile, it’s usually done through a process of turning it into a rayon fiber,” she said. “The process can be really toxic or it can be done safely. Other rayon fibers come from endangered rainforests, so it’s great they’re using waste instead of fresh trees.”
H&M’s clothing line will be limited, but it suggests an emerging break from some of the harmful practices that have earned the fashion industry a reputation for being staggeringly unsustainable.
Global Citizen has reached out to H&M for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.
“Right now we’re in a completely linear system,” Wicker said of the fashion industry. “We extract resources and we grow fibers to create textiles to make clothes, which we consume and then we throw them away.”
“Very little of what we’re not using anymore is recycled or downcycled,” she added.
Clothing companies often rely on factories that use harmful toxins that are dumped in bodies of water, and hybrid materials that are hard to recycle and release plastic into the environment. The international nature of clothing production also means that fashion brands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
H&M has 4,433 physical retail stores and sells clothes online in 47 markets. The retail giant produces hundreds of millions of pieces of clothing each year — everything from socks to sweaters to jeans to belts — and it had $4.3 billion worth of unsold clothes piling up in warehouses at the beginning of 2018.
It’s great that they’re using a renewable resource, which is biological waste, so it doesn’t require the mowing down of forest to plant something new.
As a result, the company is known as one of the chief proponents of fast fashion, the market trend of churning out clothing styles at faster and faster intervals, which has been blamed for causing enormous harm to the global environment.
“What it takes to go from a barrel of crude oil or bale of cotton into these items of apparel that we buy every day — it’s quite a process,” Linda Greer, a fashion sustainability expert and former lead scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, told Global Citizen.
“The industry is a very heavy water and energy user, and it basically pollutes all the water it uses,” she added. Greer went onto describe how all the chemicals — dyes, stain-resistants, wrinkle-resistants, etc. — used to prepare fabrics end up in bodies of water.
Greer said that the use of organic materials like pineapple leaves and orange peels are sustainable in theory, but they fail to address the fundamental problems of the fashion industry.
“I would say that on the plus side, it’s great that they’re using a renewable resource, which is biological waste, so it doesn’t require the mowing down of forest to plant something new,” she said.
She said that she has two concerns with H&M’s latest effort. First, heavy amounts of water and chemicals could be used to prepare the organic materials for use in clothing.
“How dirty are they to manufacture?” she said. “Just because you start with a biological waste, which is a good start, doesn’t mean that the manufacturing process is environmentally desirable. It could be energy intensive, it could generate hazardous waste.”
Her second reservation, she said, involves scale.
“H&M is basically a massive fast fashion bad boy that manufactures thousands and thousands of tons of clothing every year,” she said. “If they consumed every single pineapple leaf on the planet, how many blue jeans would they sell?
“Probably not very much — it’s probably a very small drop in the bucket,” she added. “They just don’t grow that many pineapples for the leaves to be collected to go into this effort. So why are they spending their time and effort on something like this that isn’t scalable?”
Beyond organic cotton and hemp, most of the truly game-changing innovations have more to do with technology than standard textiles. https://t.co/Mei89yrcW2— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) March 27, 2019
To its credit, H&M has invested more into sustainability efforts in recent years. For example, the brand claims that 57% of its clothing comes from recycled or sustainably sourced materials, and it’s working to get to 100% by 2030.
“We will continue to work for a more transparent supply chain, where cashmere is sourced from sustainable sources that are independently certified by standards that cover both animal welfare and environmental aspects,” the company said in a press release. “If the cashmere industry in the future would meet our sustainability criteria, we could consider turning to virgin cashmere again.”
H&M introduced a recycling program in its stores and encourages customers to bring in old garments that will be turned into new products or disposed of in a responsible way. The company also recently pledged to eliminate non-recyclable and otherwise problematic plastic from its supply chain by 2025.
These efforts are part of a broader movement to create circular supply chains, or closed loops, in which no waste is actually produced, and all materials can be reused and sustainably recycled.
Both Greer and Wicker highlighted two trends that need to be accelerated to make the fashion industry more sustainable overall.
First, recycling systems need to become more sophisticated so they can better sort and repurpose fibers. The second trend involves a fundamental transformation in how clothes are bought and sold. The current fast fashion model has become unsustainable, they said. Between 2000 and 2014, the average consumer bought 60% more clothing and kept each article for half as long, according to the World Resources Institute. Consumers and companies alike need to get used to buying and selling less clothes that are of higher quality, the experts said.
Companies that prioritize ethical and sustainable materials like Everlane and rental companies that encourage people to share clothing such as Rent the Runway, are helping to drive the shift toward long-term sustainability.
Truly circular supply chains, however, may be something of a pipedream at the moment.
By incorporating banana leaves and orange peels into its garments, H&M is showing that it’s willing to get creative to reach that goal, but Greer said that more has to be done.
“They need to focus on things that matter the most and stop spending time on these amateur initiatives that are never going to scale,” said Greer. “They’re just trying to tickle our fancy.”