The Swedish clothing retailer H&M has started an initiative to collect old clothes - "for more sustainability in fashion," the slogan says. Critics say the campaign is pure marketing.
"H&M Conscious" in large letters on a green background: that's how the high-street clothing retailer is advertising its new campaign, meant to appeal to the environmental consciousness of its customers. But no cashier draws attention to the flyers carrying this message lying next to the cash registers at the Cologne branch. No customer asks.
There's a cardboard box next to the elevators which looks like an improvised garbage bin. On it is written "Long live fashion - H&M Conscious." Nothing more. If you don't ask, you won't know what H&M means by it.
"No idea what it means," one customer says. "I didn't even notice it," another one adds. So what is the idea?
Since the middle of February, customers of the Swedish fashion chain H&M all over the world can bring used clothes into the branches and get a discount coupon in return. As many as 80 branches are taking part in the campaign in Germany, and H&M insists that the offer does not only apply to H&M articles, or to clothes in good condition. By contrast, normal old clothing deposits only accept clean clothes that can be worn by someone else. "We want to do something for the environment," the fashion chain claims, by minimizing the effects of textile production on the planet's eco-system.
Preserving the environment through recycling
Several tons of textiles are thrown into household garbage containers every year, and they end up on landfill sites. Up to 95 percent of the clothes could still be worn or recycled, according to H&M. "We want to offer our customers an easy opportunity to deposit their old clothes. In the long term, we want to make new textiles out of the old," a spokeswoman said.
She goes on to explain that the clothing collected will initially be stored in the participating branches and then picked up by a cooperating partner. The clothes will then be sorted into different categories - clothes that can still be worn will be sent to second-hand stores - in other words, sold on. Clothes that are no longer usable will be turned into cleaning cloths or used to make insulation material.
H&M says it is not profiting from the campaign - the income from selling the clothing will be given to social projects and recycling research. "In the long term, we want to create a closed cycle from production to re-use," the spokeswoman said.
250 euros per ton of old clothes
Critics believe the campaign was not just born of environmental concern, as customers are also being encouraged to buy something new - for every bag they bring back, they also get a coupon for a 15 percent discount on their next purchase. Clothing donations by major companies are controversial, on the grounds that many firms move into the recycling business for commercial reasons. "You can earn around 250 euros ($330) for every ton of old clothes," says Dieter Schütz of the German Red Cross (DRK). "That's why more and more companies as well as communities are moving into the market." It's estimated that around one million tons of old clothes are produced in Germany annually.
But in general the DRK welcomes H&M's campaign. "In our consumer society a lot of things get thrown away anyway," says Schütz. "If it can be used or sold again, then that isn't a bad thing." And he doesn't agree that the campaign only encourages consumption. It's more important that the clothes are used again.
But Schütz does have some complaints about the campaign, "for the simple reason that it represents competition for non-profit organizations," he says, adding that those clothing deposit services will lose a lot of the clothing. H&M responds to that accusation: "It's not our intention to provide competition to charitable organizations. We see our initiative as complementary."
The umbrella organization FairWertung, a network of charitable and church-related organizations, has been involved in the worldwide trade in second-hand clothes for many years. It is particularly interested in the effects of second-hand clothing exports on local markets.
"There is a specialized sector that concentrates on used clothing - the collector sells it to the sorter, who sells it to the retailer. So it is an entire trade chain," explains FairWertung head Andreas Voget. He says he has nothing against the sale of used clothing in principle, but he doubts whether it really helps the environment. "Used clothing collection systems by retail chains and clothing manufacturers are first and foremost a marketing instrument to increase customer loyalty and turnover of their own products."
For the initiative to be a success, H&M will have to convince both critics and donors. One thing is sure: H&M might be helping to make sure that less clothing lands in the garbage, but at the same time it is encouraging its customers to change the contents of their closets more quickly.