H&M makes no apologies for selling a constant stream of cool clothes. It’s their business, after all, and even a swift peek at their website shows they’re damn goo—you know what, shelve that thought, I need to buy this dress real quick.
“Real quick” is the key, of course, as H&M makes its billion-dollar profits by churning out a canny mix of hygge staples and runway trends. Sometimes they’re co-signed by designers like Balmain and Moschino; sometimes they’re riffs on vintage finds or designer hits. But the products keep coming, and with them, a pressing question: can fast fashion yield sustainable results?
Ann-Sofie Johansson is betting on it. As H&M’s head of design, she’s challenged the retail giant to change their carbon footprint, creating a new Conscious Exclusive collection from fabrics made of citrus peels, pineapple bark, and even blue algae.
And that’s just the beginning of H&M’s slow but significant revolution, one that will (hopefully) change how we shop forever. We sat down with Ann-Sofie to learn more about what’s coming.
‘Sustainability’ is such a buzzword that its meaning is fading. What does it actually represent in the fashion world, at least to you?
It represents significant changes, although that’s not to say all the small things we can do aren’t significant, too. Things like turning off the computer when you’re not using it, trying not to print out as much at work, recycling as much as possible. All those things can make a change, but where fashion is concerned, the first thing we need to talk about is care.
Like reading the labels in our clothes?
Exactly! We put those washing labels in every H&M garment so you can see how to take care of your clothes, and how to make them last as long as possible. Please read them!
You feel like washing clothes is our first line of eco defense?
I’ve always obsessed about taking care of my clothes, because I feel like that’s the true way to respect them. And if you love clothes—and I love clothes—I feel like you’re insulting them if you don’t. Also, I was a big vintage shopper as a teen—I still am—and I learned from my mother. Being in an older generation, I think we learned from our parents to be really careful about the things you have.
Do you think because Millennials grew up on fast fashion, we think every outfit is disposable?
Sometimes, but also, everyone in the younger generations is so much more aware about what’s going on with climate change, and about the conversations happening around sustainability. They’re the ones leading the protests in a lot of instances. It’s a give and take between all the generations. But one thing I do wish younger generations knew is that fashion fashion is not disposable fashion. Not necessarily. We can make things at a fast pace that are still responsible.
What does that look like?
Well, we talk a lot about buying things that you see in your wardrobe—how will it go with what you already have? How will it go with the trends you want to wear? That type of thing. But we also need to talk about what happens after you’re done wearing it. Can you give them up to someone else? Can you resell them? Can you use their fabric for something else? And as designers, we need to start thinking about that.
That sounds like a pretty radical idea for a mass market designer.
When I started in the late ‘80s, that was never something we considered. It wasn’t even a thought. Now I’m kind of obsessed with asking, “Okay, how is this going to be recycled? How is the end of this product going to happen? And can we adjust the design to make it easier?”
Can sustainability and trends co-exist?
Yes, especially now…but I don’t think trends are dead. I think they actually linger for a while because they let you restyle. You don’t have to buy a pair of track pants, I bet you already have one. But you’re probably styling them with platform sandals now when it used to be heels. Or heels when it used to be [sneakers].
Can sustainability and capitalism co-exist? Especially in fashion?
It’s such a tricky question! We have to ask it, but we don’t have an answer yet. We have to keep discussing it. The only thing I know is that the population is growing. Cotton probably won’t be usable in the future, because we’ll need all the land to grow food. Animal products won’t be great either, because we’ll be eating less meat. But the population is growing and it needs clothes to keep warm. Also, it’s a human thing to care about how we look and to want to express ourselves through what we put on our bodies. Fashion will always exist, as long as people exist.
So what do we do to jump start the movement?
I think we start exploring new business models. We’re looking into the renting model, of course.
Whoa. Like Armarium or Nova Octo?
Yes, we have to! As you said, we can’t expect to keep going without any change. We know we can’t do business the same way as we have been for the past 30 years. We have to change. Then there’s Care and Repair, where we encourage customers to come into our stores and repair their clothes, or learn how to do it online. That’s not in the US yet, but we’re hoping to do it soon.
And the Conscious Collection. Even though it’s so cool that you made leather boots from pineapple bark, what kind of chemical process does it take to happen?
That’s a very relevant question! Before we started seeing new fabric, we looked at how to break it down and we asked, “How sustainable is this really?” Like bamboo for example—it seemed sustainable but the chemicals needed to turn bamboo into something soft were too [strong]. I’m not a scientist, but we have plenty working on the line who test and make sure it’s happening the right way.
Have you noticed that sustainability and minimalism are kind of overlapping?
Like Marie Kondo?
Exactly. Are you a Kondo disciple?
Oh no. No way! I am not into that at all! I don’t think it’s healthy. I love my things. I could never get rid of all my clothes. Are you kidding? I could never be like that. Marie Kondo is not passionate about beauty or artistry or aesthetics. She’s not an artist. She’s not a fashion person. Just no.