On H&M’s “high-tech” recycling bins…

On 1/13/20, Chain Store Age covered the implementation of H&M’s “high-tech” recycling bins in its NY Flagship location. That article can be found here.

*As a preface to this entire piece- recycling is great, and any sustainability initiative is better than none. I am also a hypocrite because I have shopped at H&M in the last year and own quite a few things from them. That being said, more needs to be done.*

From the Chain Store Age article written by Marianne Wilson, here is what you need to know:

“The new bins, which debuted on Jan. 12 at H&M’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, house a digital scale and feature integrated digital screens. As shoppers deposit their bag of unwanted clothing into the bin, the integrated scale tallies the donation. In real-time, the digital screen displays the weight of the donation, along with a message thanking shoppers for “making a difference.” …”

“…The screen then displays a QR code that customers can scan for a 15% discount coupon that can be used on a future purchase in-store or online. The code also directs shoppers to a website outlining H&M’s sustainability efforts and goals, as well as how their donations make a difference. For example, for every 50 lbs. of donated clothing, H&M plants a tree through its not-for-profit partner, One Tree Planted. The fast-fashion retailer has a goal of collecting 5 million lbs. of apparel and plant 100,000 trees by the end of 2020, according to the company…”

“…H&M plans to add two high-tech bins to flagship stores located in Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By the end of 2020, there will be 16 bins available across all eight locations.”

On the surface, this all sounds good. Recycling is great, and making the recycling box “high-tech” is cool, too. My first two thoughts were these: “Where does the recycled clothing go?” and “What makes that box actually high-tech?”

In terms of where the clothing goes, the article states this:

“Donations are either reused in new collections, recycled into textile fibers and applied to new materials or products beyond apparel, or are sold as second-hand merchandise, according to the company’s website.”

As a skeptic of H&M’s sustainability campaign, I, as a curious consumer, want proof in the future that random, donated clothing is being reused by H&M in their new collections. I want proof that it’s being recycled into textile fibers and applied to new materials, and I want proof that it’s sold second hand. I want to know where H&M plans to sell this clothing second-hand. Are they going to create their own, random used clothing website or store? Are they going to sell it to other, more established resale sites? Or are they going to only actually resell their own products that are recycled via their own second-hand resale site?

Is this better than the average person just throwing away their clothes? 100%. Yet, I have learned that recycling used clothing is an incredibly difficult task for the organization taking that clothing in, and all of that clothing needs to be washed and somehow sanitized before it can be remade into something else or resold, and recycling actual fibers into new textiles is extremely difficult, all of which require tons more resources.

My last question in that scope is “Where does all of the clothing go that H&M just can’t figure out something to do with?” I’m curious to see, especially with that 15% off coupon that H&M is promising.

Because there are only going to be 16 boxes as of now, H&M probably won’t have to deal with mass amounts of clothing or many of the logistics that I just questioned. I think it’s great to test out this concept, but for as large of a company as H&M, this just doesn’t make that big of an impact.

Onto the recycling box…sure, the box is more high-tech than a box that doesn’t have a screen, can’t weigh the amount of clothing, and can’t provide a QR code. Is that really high-tech though? In a day and age where technology in retail is evolving at a lightning pace and there are checkout-less stores and robots that can do so many things?

I also want to point out that the link provided to H&M’s Sustainability section of their website does not actually go there, and if you are searching H&M’s website, the “Recycle at H&M” tab does not actually bring you anywhere.

Within H&M’s Sustainability reports and statements, they do acknowledge that they need to do more than just recycle, and that they want to focus on reducing their carbon emissions in stages over the next 20 years.

The goal for H&M with these recycling boxes is stated above, saying that they plan to collect 5 million pounds of clothing and plant 100,000 trees. Trees are great, and we need them, but as taken directly from (and posted right up on their website to be easily found) H&M’s Kim Hellstrom, Strategy Lead of Climate and Water for H&M group:

“…For us, it’s all about credibility – that’s the absolute key. I don’t wish to criticize those who plant trees, but if we start claiming that we are climate positive through planting trees, that’s just not credible. Planting trees is not carbon reduction; it’s carbon storage…”

“…You can also practise insetting. That’s what I want us to do, rather than offsetting. Because you should sweep around your own front door first. Insetting is a way of addressing a company’s carbon footprint within its supply chain…”

“…So it’s not just about giving money to companies that can plant trees – that’s just treating the symptoms, not the disease. There’s nothing wrong with planting trees if you’re a consulting company and the only emissions you emit are from the fan on your desk. You can buy renewable energy and incentivise your employees to take the subway instead of the car. If you want to do more, great – plant trees! But for us, as long as we’re pouring out carbon into the atmosphere through our supply chain, we need to address the problem. As a company that takes responsibility for our emissions, we must recognise that this is where our focus needs to be. Otherwise, it would be a bit like pouring oil into the Atlantic and planting trees in Africa and stating, “We’re a sustainable company”.”

I give Kim Hellstrom credit for actually acknowledging that the company needs to focus on insetting and addressing their environmental impact via their own supply chain. However, saying that you want to do that doesn’t mean that you can be awarded for doing it. Why focus on high-tech recycling boxes when you know what you really need to do? Fast fashion is not sustainable, and it just really can’t be.

I really want H&M to take the strides to be more sustainable, but with a company so large and widespread, insetting the supply chain is the answer. Not “high-tech” recycling boxes in a couple of stores that are offsetting carbon by planting trees, especially when your own Climate Strategy Lead says that’s not as impactful as it needs to be.

Published by Emma Irwin

Emma Irwin is a passionate student of the retail industry. Freshly graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.S. in Retail Merchandising, she will be pursuing an M.S. in Apparel Studies with a concentration in Retail and Consumer Studies in fall 2020. Career ambitions include writing a formal research paper, becoming a retail writer and reporter, and maybe being a CEO someday.

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