It’s not often a model asks to see detailed records of a brand’s sustainability figures before signing up to work for them. But Zinnia Kumar, the new face of H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection, did her homework. The environmental advocate, a published scientist in human evolutionary biology and ecology, has seen first hand the impact of plastic pollution, and she’s not about to put that to the back of her mind for a glossy campaign shoot. The fact H&M’s current CEO, Helena Helmersson, used to be the head of sustainability at the brand spoke volumes to the Australian activist, who was scouted as a student in Sydney. “We’re both trying to change fashion from the inside,” Kumar tells British Vogue.
The force for change, who set her sights on becoming a professor from a young age, fell in love with modelling owing to the creative outlet it gives her. “It’s my bridge between science and the real world,” she explains of the human interaction she craves after a day in the lab. “Academia is powerful, but it’s more powerful to apply it in the real world,” she says of shifting her end goal to create tangible changes for ecological, environmental and social justice.
Prior to working with H&M, Kumar was sceptical about whether a fast fashion brand could be sustainable. She was impressed by the textile innovations happening in-house at H&M – from fabrics made from sustainably sourced wood pulp to natural fibres formed from food waste – which the brand shares with the industry via its Global Change Awards. The workwear pieces crafted from Agraloop Hemp BioFibre – a natural fibre made from oil-seed hemp – and the sleek accessories realised in VEGEA – a vegan leather made from the byproducts of wine making – were transformative in changing Kumar’s opinion on fashion labelled as “conscious”.
“Conscious collections seemed to always have premiums,” notes the religious second-hand shopper, who was thrilled to score her first H&M product as a youngster scouring Australia’s “op shops”. “Greater innovations will mean [sustainable clothing] is more available to everyone, and in a decade’s time we won’t have to have collections labelled as conscious.”
For shoppers who feel dubious about the positive environmental impact they can make by buying one piece of the H&M Conscious autumn/winter 2020 line, Kumar says, “Consumers must think about the flow-on effect of every single action. Why should the rest of the world suffer because of our choices?” It’s up to us to ask more from retailers, too. “If we buy more sustainable products, then demand will rise, and unsustainable clothing will go out of fashion,” asserts Kumar. “We’ve seen it before with high-street fur.” With the backing of a bright spark like Kumar, H&M is heading in the right direction.