You wear it well: Radical views will leave a mark on you
Is it possible for fast-fashion company H&M to become sustainable fast enough? It sure is trying hard enough
Fast-fashion company H&M has made a commitment to “leading the change towards a circular and renewable fashion industry, while being a fair and equal company”. The multinational has also committed to offering fashion cheaply for generations to come.
The question is whether it is possible for a fast-fashion company to become sustainable fast enough.
Last week I was invited to attend press briefings, summits on sustainable fashion, the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award in Stockholm, and H&M’s Change Makers Lab in Berlin. The CEO of HK Research Institute of Textiles, Edwin Keh, said: “We have to act at breakneck speed to overcome the challenges we face.”
In the H&M annual report, CEO Karl-Johan Persson set out his company’s strategic focus: “Create the best customer offering; make sure we have a fast, efficient and flexible product flow; secure a stable and scalable infrastructure – our tech foundation; and adding growth by expanding through stores, online and through digital marketplaces.”
Simultaneous to this, the company has developed a sustainability strategy on three key areas: it wants to lead the change, be 100% circular and renewable, and be 100% fair and equal.
The first H&M store was opened in the Swedish town of Västerås by Erling Persson in 1947 when fashion was expensive and exclusive. Persson said his grandfather “believed that everyone should have the opportunity to express their personality through fashion and he saw it as his mission to democratise fashion and make it available to all rather than the privileged few. The concept of ‘fashion for everyone, at a great price’ has remained with our company ever since.”
Persson doesn’t see conflict between sustainable fashion and fast fashion: he believes “consumption that contributes to both reducing global poverty and enabling investment in modern, sustainable production is not the problem, but instead part of the solution”.
H&M opened six new stores in SA during the past financial year and now has 23 stores. It plans to open more in the next few weeks. H&M has 4,968 physical stores around the world and operates e-commerce sites in 47 markets. Its production is outsourced to 2,383 supplier factories, it employs 177,000 people directly and more than a million through its supply chains. It has nearly 800 million customer transactions per year.
Can H&M, a fast-fashion company, become a sustainable fashion brand? Anna Gedda, H&M group head of sustainability, said: “Yes. For big companies like H&M setting targets and measuring its impact are key to change. It’s about having a long term view and a long term mission. People need clothes but we have to figure out how to make that happen within the planetary boundaries.”
H&M has set a target to only have recyclable sustainably sourced clothes by 2030. “It will take time to transform all the material we use into recyclable or sustainable material so it’s a gradual process,” she said. “We’re making progress every year towards the goals we’re setting, and we’re setting new goals in terms of circularity, climate, and social issues.” The company has set a target to be climate change positive by 2040.
At the Global Change Award and at the Change Makers Lab the following topics were raised repeatedly:
Designing for the end-of-use of goods is core to any sustainability strategy. While the planet provides an abundance of natural resources, global demand is outstripping supply. Every year we consume about one and a half times what the planet can make in raw materials in the same period. According to Marieke Eyskoot 80 billion clothes are produced annually worldwide, and in the US 11.8 billion kilograms of clothes and textiles end up in landfill every year. The fashion industry needs to shift from a linear to a circular business model. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothes is recycled into new products. In a circular model, resources would stay in use for as long as possible before being regenerated into new products and materials, resulting in less waste and negative effects.
It’s not possible to discuss sustainability without discussing climate change. Many of the speakers mentioned the IPPC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C published last year. The report stipulated that we have to limit global warming to 1.5°C pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic climate change. We have 11 years to do this. There is clear evidence, uncontested by most scientists, that greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere by human activity cause climate change. Scientist Johan Rockström said: “It’s not about whether we will be transforming, but whether we’ll be transforming fast enough.”
H&M said it can’t transform on its own. It has developed partnerships with Make Fashion Circular and with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on circularity. It invests in developing technologies for textile recycling. It works with WWF on the responsible use of water in its value chain and with the UN and textile workers’ global trade union on how best to tackle the wage issues in the textile industry.
Collaboration helps speed up transformation. Edwin Keh said: “We need to do research at breakneck speed. We need to think to think about science, business, engineering, logistics and communication, simultaneously. We’re faced with three issues that we have to solve: climate change, depletion of non-renewable resources, and the littering of our environment.”
The co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, William McDonough made a strong link between values and sustainability: He explained how transformation must strive for good, for beauty and for abundance. “Circularity is not a goal,” he said, “it’s a tool to make good.”
Joanna Breidenbach, a cultural anthropologist, said: “We need to redesign our system to become a more just and equitable system”. To achieve this, “we need to look into ourselves and ask: what are my values? What are my beliefs? We need to focus on ourselves to address sustainability in a complex world.” Ask yourself, she said, “What is the right thing to do?”
Fashion has used AI to identify and forecast trends, but now it’s being used to close the gap between the production process and consumers. Arti Zeighami, head of AI H&M Group, said AI helps with accuracy. By applying data collected from consumers (through the more than 800 million transactions a year), it applies sophisticated mathematics to replace guesswork, which can bring consumption and production closer together to avoid waste. “If done correctly, AI can help companies become hyper-relevant and eliminate waste,” said Zeighami.
Technology and innovation
Through its Global Change Award, H&M Foundation identifies innovations to support. The five winners receive €1m between them and mentoring for a year. This year’s winner, The Loop Scoop, uses digital identities and designer resources to make fashion circular from sketch to scrap. But technology comes with an unintended consequence: according to The Guardian, data centres will soon have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry.
Inclusivity and diversity
H&M shot to notoriety last year in SA when it released an image on its website of a black boy in a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” printed on the front. Neeshan Balton, executive director of Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, who spoke at the Change Makers Lab in Berlin said: “The company didn’t do its homework. It didn’t understand the context. Calling black people monkeys is part of the history of dehumanising African people. It’s extremely offensive.”
The foundation has since had workshops and engaged with H&M staff. According to H&M’s 2018 annual report, it has focused on raising awareness around inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias, and consequently 100% of management teams in the head office had conducted training. “We’ve established common values for the company. Hopefully the next time this happens it will be an indication, not of the company, but of the individual who made the comments,” said Balton.
• Jackie May attended the Global Change Award in Stockholm and the Change Makers Lab in Berlin as a guest of H&M. For the full sustainability report read here.