Sustainability

H&M is making clothes out of discarded orange peels and pineapple leaves

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.

orangepeel

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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