H&M sustainability chief, Helena Helmersson

H&M sustainability chief, Helena Helmersson

The latest sustainability report released earlier this month by Swedish apparel retailer H&M Hennes & Mauritz highlights the group's achievements over the last year. Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability for H&M, spoke with just-style about the company's major milestones, including closed loop clothing, collaboration, and the group's African sourcing plans.

For Helena Helmersson, the launch of H&M's Fair Living Wage Roadmap was the group's biggest achievement in 2013, as it will ultimately enable suppliers to pay higher wages to their workers. But second to that, she says, is the firm's garment collecting initiative.

The short-term aim of the programme is to keep fashion from ending up in landfill and to save natural resources. For H&M, the ultimate goal is to create a closed loop for textiles in which items of clothing that are no longer wanted can be recycled into new treasures.

To this end, the group has taken the next step in its mission and created the first products made with 20% recycled cotton derived from collected clothes.

"We are working together with our customers to prolong the life of garments," Helmersson tells just-style. "In the long run we want to find ways to close the loop on textile fibres. We have managed that on a few denim garments so far but we would like to do that on a larger scale."

Helmersson says H&M is also proud of its collaboration with the WWF (the World Wildlife Fund), through which it aims to set new standards for water stewardship in the fashion industry.

"Together with WWF, we have a goal of becoming the industry leader on water, to drive the whole industry when it comes to knowing the different risks and links to water in the value chain and dealing with it."

Democratic fashion
There is no doubt H&M has made significant strides in the area of sustainability, but some industry observers have questioned whether the group's business model of selling budget clothes conflicts with its drive to improve the environment and working conditions at its suppliers.

"We are really are proud that we can offer so many people around the world affordable and more sustainable fashion," Helmersson says. "When it comes to worker conditions, I really don't think prices in the stores really tell us anything about working conditions. It's more the size of the companies."

Helmersson suggests the size of H&M means the retailer is in an ideal position to drive improvements in this area.

"We have very high standards. We have a very high presence in these countries and we have shown during the years we really can make a change. I often get comments from people thinking it might mean worse working conditions and that really isn't true. We share factories with many other brands and some of them have much higher prices than we do, even though wages in one factory are always the same."

The sustainability chief says she recognises that an increasing number of younger shoppers are becoming more aware of the ethics of a retailer's supply chain -something she says H&M welcomes.

"It's something we measure and we try to push that by talking more about sustainability, by bringing them in as part of the solution, like the garment collecting initiative for example. It's more awareness about these issues that we truly encourage."

Sustainable industry
In order to create a more sustainable fashion industry, however, Helmersson emphasises that collaboration is key.

"Collaboration and having multi-stakeholder initiatives is very, very important. We have collaborated a lot in the industry but we could do more. I also believe companies of our size need to work a lot with building systems.

"It's not enough to just have a code of conduct. It's about building systems in these countries. It's not as easy as a brand stating what a certain level of wage should be. We need to build the systems to make that work locally."

Helmersson says it's also about closing the loop on textile fibres and placing more emphasis on innovation.

Africa ambitions
Aside from its sustainability ambitions, H&M has been focusing on other areas of its supply chain: that of its supplier base.

In August last year, the fashion retailer said it was looking to source clothing from Ethiopia as it expands its supply chain to new countries that can support its growth. It has since placed test orders here and in Kenya.

H&M, which sources around 80% of its products in Asia, and the remainder primarily in Europe, emphasised the move was part of efforts to ensure it has the capacity to supply products to its expanding store base, rather than a strategic sourcing shift.

"To be able to follow our expansion plan we need more capacity," Helmersson says. "So it's really not about moving from other countries to Ethiopia. It's about needing more capacity.

"We will still be very big in Cambodia and Bangladesh, but we have big hopes for Africa. It's still in the very early stages so we can't give you anything specific on that, but Ethiopia is a big market that we see potential in."

Before entering new countries, Helmersson says the company will undertake a risk assessment on human rights and environmental issues.

"We spent a lot of time doing that in Ethiopia since there are a lot of challenges, to mention a few, industrial relations, wages, and the handling of chemicals and water. Now we are in the process of setting up those initiatives and choosing partners."

Helmersson declines to give a timeframe on H&M's ambitions for Africa, but adds: "We have learnt so much in challenging countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, so now, when entering a new part of the world with the same types of challenges, we can enter at a higher level.

"It is fantastic that we can move in and know we are contributing in a positive way. We want to make sure our presence comes with something good."

To read more from this interview, in which Helmersson talks about H&M's role in creating a sustainable fashion future, and the challenges it is facing, click on the following link: H&M takes pole position on sustainability.