H&M leads the way to sustainable fashion

It is refreshing to read Karl Johan Persson’s quote in the CEO’s opening interview in the 2014 H&M Sustainability Report: “Our business idea is to offer fashion and quality at the best price. It’s about the best value, not the cheapest prices. Sustainability is an important part of this.”

Especially in this sector, social and environmental improvements of the production process and end product have been segregated from its economical aspects and discussions about prices were taboo. Current practices in fashion production have reached a dead end.

However, there is an increasing awareness that sustainability has to be integrated in the total business, including investments and revenue generation. H&M is at the forefront of this paradigm shift and is already putting it into practice. The implementation of the Fair Living Wage Roadmap is a clear example of this and is intertwined with capacity building in the supplying factories, engagement with local stakeholders and H&M’s buying practices.

Mass production in textile factory in the Shanghai region, China. Photo Jos Kuklewski.

Mass production in a textile factory in Shanghai region, China. Photo by Jos Kuklewski.

Day-to-day progress from cotton field to fashion store

Solidaridad and H&M share a long history in working together which resulted in a strategic partnership in 2014. That’s how we create more impact on the ground and pursue common goals in the long run. While reviewing H&M’s Sustainability Report, we reflected on the results from this partnership and our day-to-day collaboration in improving supply chains.

The partnership is based on a shared vision for increasing the sustainability of the fashion industry:

  • The urgency to address sustainability now and mainstream a sustainable production process by ensuring decent working conditions, supporting a healthy environment and creating viable business opportunities throughout the supply chain.
  • Prepare for future scarcity in resources such as water, energy, cotton and other raw materials.
  • The need for a collaborative approach with suppliers, other brands, governments and civil society.
  • A day-to-day, hands-on approach to shape better practices in our projects on the ground and link purchasing decisions in the supply chain to sustainability performance. This approach transcends monitoring of suppliers, and, instead, supports suppliers through capacity building.

From this shared vision, we identified areas for close collaboration:

  • Continue improvement programmes at farm and factory level, including the cotton farm projects in West-Africa, China and India, and the Better Mills Initiative in China.
  • Discuss and improve sustainability policies like the Fair Living Wage Policy and the Code-of-Conduct.
  • Support sector-wide sustainability initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative and the development of the Higg Index, a fashion benchmark tool by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
  • Cooperating on a joint communication strategy to inspire other stakeholders to participate.

Powerful overview of impact and challenges

Solidaridad considers H&M’s Sustainability Report and the activities and achievements described as a true and accurate reflection of H&M’s business. Similar to previous years, the structure of the report is consistent and shows a clear link between the seven commitments, targets, implementation and achievements. The overview of impact and challenges along the supply chain (page 9 and 10) is a powerful tool for strategy and communication. We are pleased to see that, contrary to last year, the social impact has been included (in addition to water and climate).

Main achievements of 2014

The highlights of 2014 include an increase in collected garments, the reduction in CO2 footprints, the launch of the Conscious Denim collection and rolling out of the Fair Living Wage Roadmap. The increase in the use of more sustainable materials (from 11% to 14%) and, more specifically, sustainable cotton (from 15.8% to 21.2%) are major achievements. With the latter, H&M is well on its way to achieving the 2020 goal of 100% sustainable cotton.

The sustainability performance score at supplier level is slowly but steadily increasing. Implementation of tools like the Higg Index and alignment of the capacity building programmes at mill and factory level should contribute to reaching that goal. We are hoping to see specific numbers on water usage as well as concrete results of the Fair Living Wage Roadmap in future editions. The work in progress on revising the Code-of-Conduct is promising and we are looking forward to seeing the updated version in 2015.

Lastly, we applauded H&M for publishing their tier-1 suppliers list in 2013. Many brands and retailers are still not ready for this level of transparency. In 2015, H&M takes another brave step by releasing information about a good portion of their tier-2 suppliers, which is unique in the sector. We would encourage H&M to continue on this path of transparency and to share its experiences with peers. It would serve as an inspiration to others.

Facing new challenges to raise the bar

We consider H&M a leader in sustainability. Thanks to H&M and other well-known brands, the social and environmental impact per garment has been reduced over the years. However, there’s still much to improve. An important element in our partnership is to keep challenging each other to take fashion to the next level.

In light of the rising population, increased demand for clothing and resource constraints, business as usual is no longer an option. Recycling textiles can contribute greatly to diminishing dependence on new resources. H&M has taken a significant step in recycling, but we’re still far from closing the loop of resources. Therefore, we should also focus on the impact of the global industry, as well as the footprint per garment. How and where can production take place for the next billion shoppers that enter the high street in the coming decade? What will happen in the rapidly growing, cotton producing countries like Ethiopia and Myanmar? How can we make sure cotton and fibre production doesn’t affect food security or the biodiversity of our planet?

The role of the consumer is interesting in this respect. Not only through washing do we add to the environmental footprint, but overconsumption, and the fact that clothing is frequently treated as a disposable item, contributes to the problems in the fashion industry. These are topics that we would like to discuss with H&M in the near future, as well as with peer brands, civil society organizations and governments, in order to facilitate innovative, sector-wide solutions for the future.