Are High Street Conscious Collections All Bogus? We Consult An Industry Insider About the Future of Sustainability

Can we save the world one dress at a time? Anna Huoviala, fashion design expert with years of experience working with both slow and fast fashion labels, sheds light on some of the sustainability concerns with fashion brands that still puzzle many of us. 

Words: Meri Frig

Anna Huoviala

Anna Huoviala

Last spring, H&M launched its Conscious Exclusive collection with the aim to illustrate how exclusive beauty and style can be mindful of the planet and help protect it. And many other fast fashion brands have followed suit. The fast fashion giant’s sixth conscious collection included designs planned for special occasions, including a fairy-tale like evening gown and accessories made of recycled shoreline waste. In years prior, Urban Outfitters’ launched Urban Renewal collection that offers upcycled and redesigned vintage clothing. Other brands are taking note: Zara has reacted with their Join Life sustainable collection that employs sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled wool. Both Zara and H&M also welcome us to bring clothes we no longer wear back to the stores to give them a new life.    

The fast fashion companies’ ecological collections have gained both praise and criticism. The companies have been praised for creating awareness about the importance of ecological issues among their gazillions of followers. Editors of The Guardian and the Huffington Post have remarked, though, that considering the companies’ current business model, the real environmental impacts of the collections remain minimal: both Zara and H&M produce hundreds of millions of garments per year. So where's the catch?

Anna, you have worked as a fashion designer with many fast fashion companies, such as H&M and Tiger of Sweden. You wrote your Master’s Thesis about the fast fashion process and you have also given guest lectures about the topic in design schools. How do you see the future of fast fashion? 

Fast fashion as a phenomenon has made such big changes in the fashion industry, in consumer behaviour and demand. Social media has accelerated the fashion cycle even more in recent years. I don’t think the trend cycle can become much faster, and therefore, the whole fast fashion system now faces a new challenge.

The future of fast fashion is linked to sustainable development, as well as consumer awareness and demand: to questions, such as, what are the values of future customers and what do they expect from fashion companies. Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort predicts that we will move on from fashion to products to more personal and need-based ways of seeing fashion items. Since fast fashion is a consumer-driven phenomenon, its future is in the hands of the customers. Quoting Patti Smith: people have the power!

Personally, I believe in the rise of the more meaningful fashion sector that is based on a more sustainable style: style that does not go out of fashion in one season and is of quality that lasts.It seems that the whole industry is changing. New ways of developing design, business, and production must now be innovated. While some of the elements of the fast fashion process can, in fact, be considered rather sustainable, such as the proximity of production facilities. And, in some cases, smaller volumes and more accurate timing. All these could be employed in new and more sustainable ways. Considering that the craving for 'the new' will stay, the question is, could we innovate new ways of enjoying fashion that would not include producing more material – such as through services?

In what ways does sustainability materialise in fast fashion companies? What are some of the more sustainable attributes or trends that could be promoted in the future? 

Companies that I know of, all have a plan for how to increase the share of ecological and sustainable materials per year, for example. They consider the use of chemicals, water, and water purification. Sustainability efforts in the fashion industry are very complex. For example, companies compare the attributes of organic cotton to those of recycled polyester and tencel:  how much do these materials consume water and electricity, require processing, how closed-loop are they? As a rule, sustainability is definitely focused on the production of raw materials and not so much on the care of the products or their disposability, for example.

Ideally, sustainability should cover the whole lifecycle of a product. Some smaller companies offer, for example, mending services that extend the life cycle of the garments. These are great service-based practises that contribute to sustainability. I think that consumers could be even better informed of the post-purchase behaviour that affects sustainability, such as washing, mending, and recycling. The current trend for more basic products and minimalism is great: it has already run for many seasons and, to be on that trend, you don’t need to consume much, but you can just style what you already have. 

Are the ecological collections of fast fashion companies genuinely a positive development? 

Idealistically speaking, yes they are: every move towards more sustainability is good. If it wasn't a sustainable collection, it would be just another collection. I, nevertheless, think that what matters more is the overall change in the practices employed in all collections and their production, not just in special collections. It is positive, though, that through these special collections, consumers are educated about new materials and about sustainability in general. Also, fast fashion retailers have prices that are affordable to many. Many sustainable brands are still too expensive to many consumers. Sustainability should not be so exclusive.

"Considering that the craving for 'the new' will stay, the question is, could we innovate new ways of enjoying fashion that would not include producing more material – such as through services?"

H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection 2017 / Source: H&M.com

H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection 2017 / Source: H&M.com

In your thesis, you write that “it could be more productive to collaborate with the fast fashion companies to hopefully narrow the gap between the extremes and hasten the development of sustainable innovations on a global scale.” Can you elaborate on this? 

Why not make a 'zero waste' special collection or 'the last ten pieces you will ever need' collection? Sustainability innovators and activists could pitch fashion giants with their ideas, not only judge from afar.

The topic of your thesis was “how designers add value in the fast fashion process”. What can a designer do to promote sustainability and responsibility in the industry? 

Designers role and responsibility is to bring information about the new things, upcoming trends and those that should remain and last. Designers test new developments in materials and sense the customers values. As a designer, I think my responsibility is to drive sustainable development in my organisation, by promoting sustainable designs, materials, and production methods.

"Sustainability innovators and activists could pitch fashion giants with their ideas, not only judge from afar."

You noted that H&M has profiled their most exclusive designs sustainable. Which were they and what were the sustainable attributes? 

The Conscious collection of H&M pushes the boundaries of what you can produce from sustainable materials, such as recycled polyester - well you can even make a gala gown! They also use sustainable silk, local leather and other more exclusive and newly-developed materials. It is great that the public is informed of these, but it is a little contradictory that these pieces are very on-trend, or are used once or twice only on special occasions. Even if the product is sustainable, is the style? However, H&M is also one of the most active fast fashion companies developing their sustainable processes, and many of their materials in their normal collections are, at least to some extent, sustainable.