Sweden is a leader in waste-to-energy generation and earlier this year, the country began powering its incineration plants with trash purchased from neighboring countries. With less than one percent of Swedish household waste sent to landfill since 2011, the country needed to look outside its borders to keep its incineration plants going. Now, news has emerged that some of this waste is discarded clothing from fast fashion giant H&M.
Burning biofuels and waste has been an important strategy for transitioning the power system away from oil and coal, helping supplement Sweden’s expansive emission-free portfolio of wind, hydro and nuclear plants and bringing the country closer to its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.
According to Bloomberg, a combined heat and power station in Vesteras has burned 15 tons of discarded H&M clothing in 2017, in addition to 400,000 tons of trash. Another plant in the neighboring city of Eskilstuna — the location of the world’s first shopping mall selling only upcycled or repaired goods — is also burning clothing from H&M’s central warehouse.
“For us, it’s a burnable material,” Jens Neren, head of supplies at Malarenergi AB told Bloomberg. “Our goal is to use only renewable and recycled fuels.
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The burning of perfectly good textiles sounds unsavory, but H&M’s head of communications, Johanna Dahl, says the clothing the company sells to the Vesteras and Malarenergi plants aren’t actually fit to sell in stores.
“H&M does not burn any clothes that are safe to use,” said Dahl. “However, it is our legal obligation to make sure that clothes that contain mold or do not comply with our strict restriction on chemicals are destroyed.
Last month, a Danish television program accused H&M of burning 12 tons of unsold, useable garments in Denmark per year — a claim which the company vehemently denied. Even if this isn’t the case and the brand has stuck to incinerating contaminated clothing, the fact that a brand identified as an industry leader in sustainability would resort to incineration instead of finding alternative solutions to remove contaminants and recycle the products is somewhat concerning. What’s more, the mere suggestion of the presence of high levels of dangerous chemicals in clothing has critics up in arms.
“Shouldn’t any company that has committed to recycling find a way to remove contaminated labels from their jeans and recycle the rest?” Kirsten Brodde, Project Lead of Greenpeace’s Detox my Fashion campaign, told Fashion United. “If they take the problem of dangerous chemicals seriously, they shouldn’t be releasing potentially harmful substances into the atmosphere.”
H&M admits that the situation isn’t ideal and it is committed to finding alternatives solutions. “We definitely see that this is a problem we want to address,” said Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, Environmental Coordinator at H&M.
Meanwhile, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has released a new report — A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future — under its Circular Fibres Initiative, which calls on the fashion industry to adopt a new vision based on principles of the circular economy and create cross-industry collaborations to achieve it.
Take-make-dispose is the predominant model in the fashion industry and the root cause of many environmental impacts and significant economic value loss. Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or sent to landfill. An estimated $500 billion is lost every year due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled. If this model continues, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. As well as being wasteful, the industry is major source of pollution: Clothes release half a million tons of microfibers into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.
The report presents a positive new vision for a system that works and summons the creative power of the fashion industry to build it. In a new textiles economy, clothes would be designed to last longer, be worn more and be easily rented or resold and recycled and would not release toxins or pollution. Exploring new materials, pioneering business models, harnessing the power of design and finding new ways to scale better technologies and solutions will be required to deliver on these goals.
Over 40 influential fashion brands, leading businesses, NGOs, public bodies and experts contributed to the report and industry leaders such as Lenzing and NIKE, Inc. have endorsed the vision underlying the report. H&M has also voiced its support for the new textiles economy.
Launched at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May 2017, the Circular Fibers Initiative brings together stakeholders across the industry including brands, cities, philanthropists, NGOs and innovators to collaborate and create a new textiles economy, aligned with the principles of the circular economy.