Discarded H&M Clothing Is Fueling a Swedish Power Plant

Unsellable H&M; merchandise is helping to heat and power homes outside of Stockholm. (Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for H&M;)

It’s easy to succumb to semi-pejorative stereotypes when describing a specific place as being “powered by ...” something that it consumes or creates a lot of. Seattle is powered by Starbucks coffee grounds. New York City is powered by leftover bagels. Los Angeles is powered by broken dreams. You get the picture.

Now, in news that seems too perfect to be true, it would appear that a municipality in Sweden is quite literally being powered by “disposable chic” clothing purveyor H&M.;

As reported by Bloomberg, unsellable garments manufactured by the iconic Swedish fast-fashion retailer are being burned by the truckload at a combined heat and power (cogeneration) plant in lieu of oil and coal.

And for an added boost of irony, the power plant in question is located in Västerås, the very same small city located roughly 60 miles west of Stockholm where Erling Persson founded H&M; as a fledgling women’s-only boutique in 1947. (The “H” stands for Hennes or “hers” in Swedish.) Today, H&M; is not only one of Sweden’s most recognizable homegrown brands next to IKEA, Volvo and Ericsson but the world’s second largest fashion retailer with over 4,000 stores spread across 67 markets.

Supplying power to roughly 150,000 households, the waste-to-energy facility in Västerås — described as "the largest in Sweden and one of the cleanest in Europe" — aims to phase out the burning of fossil fuels by the year 2020 at which point it would switch over completely to burning biofuels as well as recycled wood and run-of-the-mill rubbish — a renewable, if imperfectly so, energy source.

Waste-strapped Sweden desperately seeks garbage

Kraftvärmeverket, combined heat and power plant in Vasteras, Sweden
Kraftvärmeverket, the largest combined heat and power plant in Sweden, includes a new, highly advanced waste-to-energy facility where recycled wood, household garbage and H&M; clothing is burned. (Photo: Lasse Frederiksson/Mälarenergis)

Over the course of 2017, 15 tons of discarded H&M; merchandise — everything from damaged treggings to mold-infested T-shirts — yanked before hitting store shelves was burned and converted into energy at the plant. H&M; castoffs represent only a teeny-tiny portion of the power station’s rubbish-based fuel stream: By comparison, 400,000 tons of ordinary household garbage was incinerated in 2017.

While Sweden relies heavily on energy sources such as hydropower and wind, many municipalities are home to garbage-burning cogeneration plants thanks to a longstanding waste-to-energy incineration program initiated in the late 1940s. Yes, these facilities produce emissions. However, they’re strictly regulated and significantly less when compared to coal-burning plants. More importantly, plants like the one in Västerås help to divert hundreds of tons of trash from local landfills. (Swedes are so famously skilled at diverting waste from landfills that the spic-n-span Scandinavian nation has been forced to import burnable trash from abroad in order to keep its waste-to-energy plants humming.)

As for the rejected H&M; clothes that otherwise would have been unceremoniously landfilled, they’re sourced from the retailer’s central warehouse in the city of Eskilstuna, about an hour south of Västerås. Because residents of Västerås are so skilled at recycling and minimizing their personal waste streams, utility Mälarenergi AB, which owns and operates the power plant, also trucks in rubbish —15 tons of H&M; warehouse waste included — from neighboring Eskilstuna to help keep the waste-fires burning steady.

“For us it’s a burnable material,” Jens Neren, head of fuel supplies at Mälarenergi, told Bloomberg. “Our goal is to only use renewable and recycled materials.”

Fast-fashion is still a bad fit

Shopper in H&M; store
As a multinational retailer specializing in fast-fashion, Stockholm-headquartered H&M; has a massive environmental footprint. (Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

It was only recently revealed on a Swedish news program that H&M; clothing sourced from the Eskilstuna warehouse is incinerated as fuel at the Malarenergi facility in Västerås. Predictably, this news led to collective eyebrow-raising as the clothing in question is, after all, new and unused even if defective. However, H&M; has been quick to point out that the clothes sent to Västerås aren’t just unsellable but so badly damaged that recycling or donation aren’t viable options due to safety issues.

“H&M; does not burn any clothes that are safe to use,” Johanna Dahl, head of communications for the retailer, relayed to Bloomberg in an email. “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.”

While eschewing coal and other dirty fossil fuels in favor of a singularly Swedish material for generating clean-ish energy is applaudable, the scheme at the Västerås power plant doesn’t necessarily address the staggering environmental costs of fast-fashion. H&M;, purveyor of attire that’s trendy, cheap and often discarded at the end of each season, is a bold-faced name in this exceptionally dirty and waste-heavy industry. The fact that H&M; has 15 tons of moldy clothing sitting in a Swedish warehouse that can only be destroyed is alarming enough as is.

According to a sobering new report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than half of the clothing sold by fast-fashion retailers such as H&M;, Uniqlo, Forever 21 and Zara are discarded in less than a year, while the average number of times a garment is worn before being retired has deceased by 36 percent over the last 15 years.

But for what it’s worth, H&M;, much like IKEA, is trying in earnest to lessen its considerable environmental impact through various sustainability initiatives. A notable one is a garment recycling initiative launched in 2013 that allows shoppers to drop off old and unwanted clothing (it needn’t be H&M;) at dedicated collection points. Once collected by the retailer’s recycling partner, the clothes are either donated to charities or resold as-is so that they can be re-worn again. They also may be repurposed into new products such as cleaning cloths or recycled into textile fibers and used in insulation. (The MacArthur Foundation reports that less than 1 percent of the materials used to make clothing are recycled into new clothing.)

Planet-friendly moves by one of the worst perpetrators of throwaway fashion aside, it's never a bad idea to slow down — way down — by investing in clothing that you'll burn through less quickly.