H&M’s head office in Stockholm is a pretty fashionable place. Even the “lunch” table in its main atrium cafeteria serves an extra-stylish dual-purpose: The long rectangular black table, which has stairs on each end, regularly doubles as a runway. Hacan Andersson, a press officer and 28-year company veteran who got his start as a sales associate, tells me that even CEO Karl-Johan Persson has walked it at internal fashion shows for new collections.

The atrium is also the best place to spot fashion-forward staffers wearing numerous company products in creative ways – close to the salad bar, I eye a woman wearing a “belt” that is actually a scarf from the Isabel Marant collab. And virtually every staffer I meet is wearing a rainbow-coloured “H&M x Civil Rights Defenders Bracelet” (100 percent of the sale proceeds go toward the non-profit’s human-rights work). “Every day is a fashion show here at the H&M cafeteria,” Andersson tells me.

Upstairs, I check out the men’s design department (because it is deemed the most organized and the only one fit for outside eyes). Unfortunately, when I visit, the leaders of the 160-strong design team are in Paris prepping for a fashion show, but I still get to walk through the craziest “closet” ever.

The walls are lined with thick stacks of collapsible mobile shelves that sit on tracks. It looks a bit like a law library, but one that’s tightly packed with clothing samples from all sorts of brands rather than legal books. While the Dewey Decimal System is not in use here, each piece is carefully tagged with a date and other information. There is a rotary handle on each stack that employees must manually crank to open up an entry space to access the racks. Even for someone with a tightly packed closet of her own, the sight is more daunting than inviting.

But before the design process even begins, and almost two years before a collection hits stores, the colour team is already planning a palette for each season. H&M’s “colour room,” which is actually white and tan (as is most of the headquarters’ workspace), is the next stop on my tour and is filled with white boards that are covered with small squares of coloured fabrics.

Rafael Pilati, a member of the in-house colour team, shows me the boards for the upcoming season: Blue, white and citrus colours will be big for spring/summer 2015, but black is H&M’s perpetual bestseller in every region of the world, despite the fact that the brand uses a palette of 180 colours each season. Overall, the company has archived 3,200 of its own numbered colours and is adding about 150 new ones every year. The precise code for each swatch is important, as it allows all of H&M’s global offices, as well as contracted dye houses, fabric mills and factories around the world, to keep things as consistent as possible.

Pilati shows me a small appliance called a “light box”; it has settings for “shop light,” “daylight” and a warmer “home light,” which glows like an incandescent bulb. “Some colours can completely change in different light,” he explains, grabbing a green sample swatch to show me. “Cocky green especially – it is always changing to brown when you put it in home light. It is the most difficult colour,” he says.

“Sorry, ‘cocky’ green, is that the colour name?” I ask. After a bit of discussion, we realize we’re talking about “khaki” green and we’ve just had a “lost in translation” moment.

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I’m then shown the design library, which is a coffee-table-book-lover’s mecca. Brightly illustrated and photographed volumes on virtually everything – I spot whole sections on flowers, fish and all kinds of art exhibits – are carefully arranged and serve as inspiration to the design team. There’s even a sign that warns “No mischief on the books and CDs” hung among framed movie posters, including one of Joaquin Phoenix wearing super-high-waisted pants in Her. I jokingly ask if this is a trend we could be seeing. The response is a non-committal “Maybe.”

From there, I’m off to the airport for an overnight flight to see one of H&M’s supplier factories in Shanghai (read the story in our October 2014 issue) – and perhaps maybe even spot some extended in-seams on the sewing lines (for those high-waisted styles)….

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On the next page: H&M’s sustainability efforts with cotton and recycling…

A pair of jeans from H&M’s first partially recycled denim collection.

H&M admits that its first attempt at using certified organic cotton in the 1990s wasn’t entirely successful. “We thought that meant you should have a collection with beige stuff,” Henrik Lampa, the company’s environmental sustainability manager, tells me with a laugh. “We made a chemical restriction list, but we didn’t sort of holistically grasp it all at that time,” he says. Making matters worse, that first collection was called “Nature’s Calling” – which does not have the same “bathroom” connotation in Swedish as it does in English. “It was one of those Swenglish names, but that wasn’t the problem,” he says. “The problem was ‘the look’ and that it was one of the most unsustainable collections we had because it didn’t sell.”

Today, one of the projects Lampa handles personally is H&M’s work with the Better Cotton Initiative – a non-profit consortium that trains farmers to cultivate cotton with fewer chemicals and water. Last year, the company used 15.8 percent sustainable cotton, up from 11.4 percent in 2012, but Lampa tells me the company’s goal is to source 100 percent of its cotton from “more sustainable sources” by 2020.

H&M’s definition of sustainable cotton is not the same as certified organic cotton, but sourcing more certified organic cotton is part of its sustainable-sourcing plan. The company was the world’s top consumer of organic cotton in 2010 and has remained so (except for 2012, when it came in at number two). Last year, 10.8 percent of its cotton was certified organic, up from 7.8 percent the previous year.

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Longer-term, H&M’s biggest sustainability goal, according to Helena Helmersson, the company’s global head of sustainability, is to “close the loop” – meaning find a way to recycle old clothing into new garments and minimize the amount of natural resources (like cotton) needed to produce new clothing in the first place.

In early 2013, the company launched a worldwide clothing-collecting initiative. H&M stores now have recycling boxes where customers can drop off two bags at a time of any-brand old clothing. (When you do this, you also get a discount voucher for your next purchase.) So far, more than 91 tonnes of garments have been collected in Canada and over 7,320 tonnes worldwide. These are graded and sorted and, if possible, recycled or else turned into cleaning cloths or insulation for the auto industry. (While the program did not make a lot of profit in its first year due to launch costs, the company says any future profits from the program will be reinvested into the initiative.)

In February, H&M debuted its first small collection of “close the loop” products: five denim items made with 20 percent recycled cotton and 28 percent recycled polyester. “It’s amazing that after a year of effort, we can show customers these closed-loop garments, but it’s just a small amount that are old fibres and it’s few garments,” says Helmersson. “More R&D is needed. When I talk about closing the loop, it’s more that it should be scalable.”

ELLE WORLD: Fast Fashion Times: A 72-hour behind-the-scenes tour from H&M’s headquarters in Stockholm to a factory floor in China.
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