updated 10 Apr 2014, 19:50
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Eco & price friendly
by Corinne Kerk

It's a nice idea - to wear fashionable clothes that are also environmentally sustainable. Only thing is, these clothes will cost a lot more.

Or will they?

Debunking the myth that fashionable, yet eco-friendly garments are only within the reach of the well-heeled tree-hugger, Swedish fashion company H&M has launched its third Conscious Exclusive collection - a gorgeous range of sustainable fashion that increasing numbers of Hollywood celebrities are seen in.

This limited edition, 30-piece collection of clothes and accessories is a collaboration with sustainable fashion and design think tank, EVER Manifesto, and inspired by flamenco and Bohemian influences.

The clothes are rich in detailing, featuring plenty of embellishments and made with high-quality fabrics such as Tencel (a silk-like renewable material); recycled cotton, polyester and plastic; and organic cotton, silk and vegetable-tanned leather.

The Conscious Exclusive collection and the lower-priced Conscious collection (made with less experimental sustainable materials) are part of H&M's ongoing efforts to promote economic, social and environmental sustainability - something one doesn't normally equate with high street fashion - but is nonetheless taken seriously at the fashion giant.

And best of all, prices are very affordable. Conscious collection pieces range from $14.90 for a men's shirt in 50 per cent organic cotton to $159 for a pair of ladies' sandalette in 100 per cent organic leather.

Conscious Exclusive items cost from $17.90 for an organic cow leather rose headpiece to $699 for a 66 per cent organic cotton lace gown.

Indeed, H&M is ranked 64 on the Global 100 annual list of the most sustainable companies in the world, and has banned the use of Perfluorinated Compound (PFC) in its clothes since Jan 1, 2013 - the first fashion company to do so.

H&M in February 2013 also became the first fashion company to launch a clothing collection initiative worldwide so second-hand clothes can be re-worn, reused or recycled.

H&M's sustainable fashion has come a long way since its initial appearance back in 2007 when it wasn't even given a name.

Today, H&M has a code of conduct stating the requirements it places on all suppliers and their subcontractors for improving working conditions and environmental practices; chemical restrictions, guidelines on the responsible use of natural resources and investments in social projects, among others.

"Back then, our eco-friendly clothes didn't look like fashion," laughs Catarina Midby, H&M's head of fashion and sustainability communication at the recent Conscious and Conscious Exclusive collections launch in Hong Kong. "But now, we don't have to compromise anymore because the development of sustainable fabrics is just amazing, and we have a Conscious Foundation (to contribute to positive long-term change)."

Despite keeping sustainable fashion within reach of most consumers, H&M emphasises that this is not done "at the expense of the employment conditions of garment workers".

"The labour cost of producing a garment is just a small part of the general cost of selling it," explains Magnus Olsson, country manager, H&M Greater China & South-east Asia.

"We have a lot of experience when it comes to producing garments, choosing the right factories and markets to work with and we buy in large volumes. We have no or very few middlemen in our logistics chain and are very efficient in our logistics and distribution systems. We operate our own stores and are generally very cost-conscious. So there are many aspects of savings in the whole chain."

On top of that, he notes that around 90 per cent of the workers in Bangladesh who make H&M's clothes are earning more than the minimum wage today. And these garment workers are also producing clothes for higher-priced brands.

"So if we take a long-term view on this, there is no link between prices and labour cost," he points out.

"Sustainable fashion is therefore a good thing to do and it won't affect the price for the consumer."

Clearly, customers agree, with the Conscious and Conscious Exclusive collections consistently selling out despite not being advertised.

"We are especially focused on our long-term goal of having all our products come from more sustainable materials by 2020," he says, adding that H&M is one of the largest buyers of organic cotton for its general assortment.

Meanwhile, Mr Olsson says H&M is "very happy" with the "love affair" between the company and Singapore, where it currently has five stores. H&M is opening a store at One Raffles Place next month and another at the Sports Hub in the second quarter, where it will offer a broader sports line.

"The sports collection is fairly new and being developed to become much bigger. The feedback we've got so far is very positive and we try to combine functionality with fashion. We sponsored the Swedish Olympic team in Sochi and will do it also in Brazil for all their off-arena clothing, with some athletes competing in our clothes and helping us develop new lines.

We have running, outdoor sports, tennis and general training clothes and we see a big trend. So it's going to be interesting to see how we can present this in the Sports Hub."

Both the H&M Conscious and Conscious Exclusive collections for Spring 2014 will be available from April 10.

This article was published on April 5 in The Business Times.

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