H&M has a solid reputation for social and environmental responsibility, and launched a new sustainability strategy last year aimed at further embedding ethical tenets into every area of the company. But corporate social responsibility manager Ingrid Schullström believes there is potential to communicate more directly to consumers how sustainability is informing the way it does business.
 
As sustainability has become increasingly important to consumers, the need for companies to promote their ethical credentials, and the marketing advantages this offers, has grown markedly.

The challenge for campaigners, for journalists - and most importantly perhaps for consumers - is to know when this is substance and when it is just PR.

The term 'greenwashing' was surprisingly first coined as far back as 25 years ago but has latterly become well established in the corporate lexicon. There is plenty of it about.

However, one company that would be rarely accused of over-egging its work on environmental and social responsibility is H&M.

In fact, corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager Ingrid Schullström believes the company has sometimes been too reticent about communicating the way its values influence how it does business.

"I think we are traditionally very Scandinavian in being fairly modest," Schullström says, adding "that we'd rather do things first and talk about it later".

She says that while the company has been active in this area for as long as 12 years, she feels customers do not "know enough about what we actually are and have been doing", and identifies the communication of its CSR activities as "an area where we should maybe improve".

Indeed, while H&M presents its ethical positions and community investment activities through its website and reports, she says consumer research has suggested customers would like to receive more information about what the company is doing in this area.

Precisely how it goes about this is yet to become clear.

Schullström believes that innovation in marketing and merchandising could all be in the pipeline. But she is keen to stress that raising the profile of its CSR work is now a company-wide responsibility.

New sustainability strategy
H&M launched a new sustainability strategy last year, and a key theme in this programme is the embedding of CSR throughout the business, rather than being simply the prime concern of the CSR department.

The "great shift" with the new strategy is "making sustainability both an integral part of how we do our business and also a shared responsibility for all decision-makers in the company".

Schullström agrees that ethically aware clothing companies have been successful at implanting values-driven thinking through their buying departments.

One of H&M's aims is to foster more creative thinking on CSR further down the chain in marketing and merchandising.

Schullström says the aim should be to "communicate to the customer in a form that the customer is prepared to receive the information and the place where the customer wants to receive it, which is probably in the store or on the product and so on".

And she says that embedding process is already well underway.

"We have a lot of people in our organisation, not just in the CSR department, but in buying, in marketing or other areas, that are really sitting down and thinking hard about sustainability and what it means for them and what are they going to do about it," she says.

The strategy also means "they have a responsibility to consider sustainability in their daily work", Schullström adds.

"So what will come out of that I'm sure is a lot of creativity and a lot of new, exciting ideas. It's really created a dynamic in the company."

Organic success
With regard to the potential for consumer uptake of new concepts, Schullström feels one need look no further than the success of H&M's organic range.

According to the company's most recent Sustainability Report, H&M's usage of organic cotton has risen from 30 tonnes in 2006 to 1,300 tonnes in and 3,000 tonnes in 2008.

The company has a long-term target to increase organic cotton use by at least 50% every year until 2013.

Schullström believes one of the keys to that success lies in marketing organic cotton garments in a way that is consistent with its overall image.

"Sometimes designers have thought that this is organic cotton so we have to make a garment that is really somehow comfortable and practical, somehow connected to some sort of healthy living," Schullström explains.

The H&M approach has always been "let's just make the latest fashion, the only thing we change is that the cotton we use is organic".

Schullström stresses that the objective of increasing sales of ethically-sourced goods through mainstream channels is less likely if customers feel they are "making a sacrifice buying" or "buying this to be good", because "that is not what consumers do".

Commercial dimension
Commercial realism is another central theme of a successful corporate responsibility strategy in Schullström's view.

"We talk more about sustainability because we have to have the economic dimension to it," she says.

The sustainability agenda is about balancing "people, profit and planet", while the H&M concept is, Schullström adds, founded on "our product, our fashion and our price".

A successful CSR strategy aims to integrate these ideas. The sustainability dimension is "like an added quality for the customer."

A key benefit of implanting its CSR policy in areas such as marketing and merchandising is how it helps in achieving precisely that synthesis of the company's fashion with its ethical values.

"That perfect combination between what the customers is looking for in terms of both fashion and a sustainable product."

Another key part of keeping that ethical message consistent with the H&M style is, in Schullström's view, not to go overboard.

She concedes that the company may have been unduly reticent in the past. But now that raising the profile of its CSR activities has risen up the agenda "we want to do it in a way that feels like H&M, maintaining the quality of the message and not making it PR or going beyond what we can deliver".

As far as campaigners are concerned, it is as vital that companies which are doing the right thing are promoting this sufficiently to consumers - both to raise consciousness and to boost sales of more ethically-sourced products - as it is to prevent companies from exaggerating environmental and social achievements.

Many companies have recognised the marketing advantage inherent in cultivating a green image, but their rhetoric has far preceded their actual achievement.

H&M appears to be the other way round, and that surely does it great credit. Asserting itself a little may offer some commercial pay-off that it has already earned.