All clothing from H&M Garden Collection

It’s Complicated

My Conflicting Feelings for H&M

THINGS WERE ALREADY TENSE BY THE TIME HÅCAN PASSED AROUND THE CANDY. I TOOK A PINK, SUGAR-DUSTED HEART FROM H&M'S BLUE BOW-TIED PRESS OFFICER AND TRIED TO THINK CLEARLY. CLOSE TO HALF AN HOUR OF BANTER HAD ALREADY PASSED, AND WE HAD JUST 45 MINUTES FOR OUR MEETING. IT WASN'T LIKE ME TO BE THIS NERVOUS.


Back in January, I had brazenly blogged about H&M's alleged transgressions: slashing and trashing unsold clothing in New York City, misidentifying organic cotton, and exposing customers to heavy metals in handbags. The third-largest clothing retailer in the world seemed like an easy target. I hadn't expected to end up on the sofa at their headquarters quite so soon.

The preceding days in Stockholm, designers working to bring sustainability to fashion told me the key was slow crafting on a small scale, whether that meant starting a factory with three employees, or hand-shearing organic sheep. Those organic tweed jackets are gorgeous, but they can cost more than $800. A great deal of sustainable style, it seems, comes with an air of exclusivity, and a price tag to match. So what about the rest of the world? That's where H&M comes in.

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The reasonably priced fashion retailer had been omnipresent throughout my trip. If I wasn't walking past one of their stores, I was hearing their name in meetings—usually invoked as a generic example of an inexpensive clothing retailer with rapid speed-to-market. Think of the way we use McDonald's as our flagship of fast food.

That was H&M—the McDonald's of fast fashion. And now I was munching gummy hearts on a couch in a sprawling concrete-floored showroom at the brand's Stockholm headquarters. A sunbeam lit up a rack of blouses, tunics and gowns awash in impressionistic flowers of varying scale. They were part of H&M's Garden Collection, a rainbow assortment of clothes made of organic and recycled materials, launching in stores that very day. Catarina Midby, the company's tall, blonde Trend Coordinator, sat in front of the rack, wearing a sheer white cotton top from the collection. Embroidered with blooms in poppy red, grass green and bubble-gum pink, the blouse mirrored the colors of a platter of gummy candies sitting on the coffee table before us.

candy break

Henrik Lampa, Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility, a sandy-whiskered fellow in frameless glasses and a red gingham shirt, sat at the other end of the table. The colors of the Garden Collection were happy and bright, but the air in the room felt inexplicably tense.

I think it was the company's sheer power that intimidated me. I'm from the Midwest, so I'm no stranger to the mass appeal of the shopping mall. Here in New York, I've watched my fashionable friends queue up to buy up H&M's collaborations with designers like Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld. It seemed to me if anyone could help to mainstream sustainable fashion, it might be H&M.

But earlier that week, I talked to Karin Stenmar, a champion of taking fashion slow who compared the retailer to multinational fast food conglomerates that hook poverty-stricken countries on instant and unhealthy foods.

"They are making people addicted to cheap garments,” she said, of H&M. And what's worse, making them so readily available that people were purchasing them all the time.

She had a point. But it also occurred to me that one of the retailer's greatest strengths lay in the remarkable ability to give shoppers the clothes they want, at precisely the moment before they wanted it.

As I wondered whether Catarina's top would be available in stores that day, the Trend Coordinator explained that each week H&M receives sales reports from their stores around the world, and uses them to effect orders already underway with factories. In just two months, she said, H&M could bring a new style from a designer's sketch to a rack in one of their 2,000 stores. If the style was a repeat that had sold well, they could knock that down to a month.

So how, I wondered, do you balance issues of sustainability—whether testing for harmful chemicals or unsafe working conditions—with the pressure to deliver on such a tight calendar?

Henrik took a breath, but Håcan didn't miss a beat.

"We don't see ourselves as a fast fashion company,” he said.

I didn't see that coming.

700 suppliers, 100 designers and 20 production offices that could bring a style to 2,000 stores in 37 countries in just four weeks—and that wasn't fast? I was momentarily paralyzed.

And then, before I knew it, we were standing up and shaking hands. Catarina took one last gummy candy and giggled something self-deprecating about Sweden's insatiable sweet tooth. Things had just started to get interesting, and H&M was bidding us goodbye. Our time was up.

I was crestfallen with my inability to engage them in any real conversation. Back in New York, I was reminded of my failure with every ad I saw for the Garden Collection—and they were many—greeting me at the top of the steps of the subway, peeking between the pages of my magazines and smiling at me from the sides of buses in SoHo.

I emailed Håcan , Catarina and Henrik, and was happily surprised when Henrik replied. I learned he would be in town for a meeting at the United Nations about corporations and water consumption. I asked him if he might have a minute to sit down. He might.

A couple weeks later, in a café on First Avenue, Henrik told me a little more about his job. He studies how each step in the design process - the materials, construction and finishes, all contribute to a product's life-cycle, and works with factories to examine how their processes— washing denim to soften it, for example —might be improved to minimize a product's environmental footprint. He even sketched me a rough graph to illustrate how much energy use lay in each part of the process. Albert Bartlett, I thought, would appreciate this.

Ultimately, Henrik said, it came down to the customers. How we wash, dry, care, and, yes, shop for our clothing, accounts for a great deal of a garment's environmental impact.

"What you buy, when you buy,” said Henrik, "is not our responsibility.”

I thought back to that meeting at H&M's headquarters.

Come to think of it, next to the candy on the coffee table, there had been a beautiful bowl of fruit, which incidentally, sat untouched.