Fast-Fashion Leftovers Fuel This Swedish Factory

Not all unwanted clothing meets the finest of fates. Some forgotten-about fashions leave stores with remorseful buyers, destined to hang idly in the back of a closet for an unspecified amount of time. Others wind up in a donation bin, on a consignment shop rack, or worse—in a landfill among the 13 million tons of discarded clothing that Americans throw away each year. Unfortunately, the fast-fashion industry continues to compound this issue by doling out cheaply made clothing at a rapid pace that suits business interests and eager consumers alike. But not everyone perpetuates the pattern of this environmentally harmful garment-generating game, particularly this Swedish factory that uses discarded H&M clothing as a power source.

According to a recent report, a heat and power plant located in Västerås hopes to become a fossil-free facility by 2020. As a part of its efforts to leave behind its coal and oil-firing methods, the factory harnesses energy by burning recycled wood and trash, which consists of clothing that the fashion retailer can’t sell. Approximately 15 tons of cast-off H&M fashions have fueled the factory’s operations this year, allowing it to supply power to nearly 150,000 households.

The factory’s “fashion fuel” served as a sustainable substitute for the 400,000 tons of trash that would’ve been burned in its place, which is a substantial step towards Sweden’s goal of becoming completely fossil-free.

Unfortunately, what the factory burns is but a small dent in the immense waste contributions of fast-fashion retailers. While browsing for the perfect pair of distressed jeans, the average H&M consumer probably has no idea about the negative ramifications fast fashion has on the environment.
“Fast fashions create numerous environmental problems, such as excess waste, chemicals from dyes, cleaning processes, using up extreme amounts of resources,” fashion industry expert and writer Mariana Leung tells Playboy. “Fast-fashion factories often have the worst records for working conditions for the employees as it is about speed and quantity, not quality. As they are mostly manufactured in countries overseas, the transport of the goods to their end-consumer also creates excess environmental damage from the fuels used in travel,” she adds.

To H&M’s credit, the company has taken steps to make sustainability a part of its brand. There’s their Sustainability Department, which ensures that “H&M produces fashion with a conscience” through initiatives like its garment recycling program. And this fall, the fashion retailer released a denim capsule collection made from recycled clothing and organic cotton fibers. While there have been some questions about whether the fashion retailer is intentionally misleading customers with its eco-friendly ethos, the hope is that their visible efforts could encourage other fast-fashion brands to follow suit.

In the meantime, the Swedish factory will continue to do its part in lessening the impact that the cheap and quickly made fashions have on the environment. It has plans to expand its efforts by collecting trash (that also contains H&M clothing) from a nearby village and burning it for power. But do examples like this alleviate the burden that fast-fashion producers have to be environmentally responsible?

According to Dr. Luz Claudio, professor of environmental medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of the article Waste Couture: The Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, this type of power plant may be environmentally responsible, but that doesn’t negate the need for more consciousness among fashion producers.

“Assuming that they are using the most advanced incineration, scrubbing and filtering technologies available that significantly reduce the air pollutants and greenhouse gasses released, I think that these kinds of power plants would be a net gain to the environment as compared to coal or oil-burning power generation,” Claudio tells Playboy. “For example, one thing that should be factored in is that using clothing as fuel instead of coal or oil reduces the methane emissions that would have been produced from dumping the clothing into a landfill. Given that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, this is an added benefit. However, I do believe that the most environmentally sound approach would require a cultural change in the fashion industry that reduces the production of fast fashion in the first place.” 

In a world where convenience often outranks consciousness, let’s hope this factory’s unique sustainability practices begin to spread and surpass the pace at which many fast-fashion retailers produce collections.

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