Two things are clear. The 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 by the H&M 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. Many of the invited speakers said change needs to happen and it needs to happen fast.CEO of HK Research Institute of Textiles Edwin Keh said, “We have to act at breakneck speed to overcome the challenges we face”.

In its annual report, H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson sets 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 strategy of speed and growth, the company has developed a sustainability strategy that is being built on three key areas: It wants to be leading 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. Erling’s grandson Johan-Karl Persson says 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 South Africa during the last financial year and currently has 23 stores in this market. It plans to open more stores in the next few weeks. At the moment, H&M has 4968 physical stores around the world and operates e-commerce sites in 47 markets. Its production is outsourced to 2,383 supplier factories around the world, 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 says, “Yes. For big companies like H&M setting targets and measuring its impact are key to change. It’s about having a longterm view and a longterm 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 use recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials in total material use (commercial goods and packaging) 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 says. “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. Is the company meetings its targets? Anna says it has.

Can a fast fashion company become sustainable fast enough? H&M will try damn hard but only if it makes commercial sense. As its head of sustainability, Anna says, “It’s a gradual process”. We won’t know the answer until 2030 when H&M hopes to be using 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials.

Addendum

Over the course of last week, during the press briefings, panel discussions and speeches at the Global Change Award and at the Change Makers Lab the following topics were raised repeatedly:

Circular Design

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 time. According to Marieke Eyskoot 80 billion clothes are produced annually worldwide and in the USA 11.8 billion kilos of clothes and textiles end up in landfill every year. The fashion industry needs to shift from a linear to a circular business model. Currently less than 1% of material used to produce clothes across the industry 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 a reduction in waste and negative impacts.

To achieve a circular economy means:

  • designing out waste and pollution
  • keeping products and materials in use
  • allowing nature to regenerate

Climate Change

It’s not possible to have a discussion on sustainability without discussing climate change. Many of the speakers last week 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 is the cause of the current climate change we’re evidencing. Speaker at the Change Makers Lab and scientist Johan Rockström said, “It’s not about whether we will be transforming, but whether we’ll be transforming fast enough.”

Collaboration

To transform, H&M says it can’t do it on its own. It has developed partnerships with Make Fashion Circular and with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on circularity. It invests in innovations that are 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.” Edwin says they don’t care about secrecy or copyright. “We’re faced with three issues that we have to solve: climate change, depletion of non-renewable resources and the littering of our environment.”

Values

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 the transformation we need 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?”

Artificial Intelligence

Fashion has been using 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 that AI helps with accuracy. By applying data collected from consumers (through the more than 800 million transactions a year), they apply sophisticated mathematics to replace guess work which can bring consumption and production closer together to avoid waste. “If done correctly, AI can help companies become hyper-relevant and eliminate waste,” says Arti.

But biased data, said Arti, can very scary. “AI needs the right data to be able to make the right decisions.” Ethiopian expert Betleheim Dessie said, “You can use AI for social change and positive good. But we need to care about the people who do AI. AI needs data collected from divers sources”.

“If we know where consumers are, what looks they want, we can take the product to them,” said Arti. “We can also use it to help consumers decide what to do with with the garment once they have used it.”

And, maybe soon AI can help you manage your wardrobe.

Technology and Innovation

The role of innovation is to enable change, and most often these innovations involve new technologies. Both innovation and technology are a means to an end.  Through its Global Change Award, H&M Foundation identifies innovations to support through acceleration. The five winners receive 1m EUR between them and mentoring for a year. It is worth noting that many of these winners use technology. For instance this year’s winning 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 are set to soon have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry. Anna said that with H&M’s AI and data governance “we look into what the environmental foot print of that is… we’ve been working with green technology for quite a while.”

Inclusivity and diversity

The multi-national brand shot to notoriety last year in South Africa 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 dehumanizing African people. It’s extremely offensive”. The Ahmed Kathrada 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. Neeshan says, “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”.

Ezinne Kwubiri, head of newly created job, inclusion and diversity for H&M Group in North America said, “If we’re a global company we must act like one, despite our core origin.”

Burak Cakmak dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design said, “Inclusion is being able to give voice to diverse groups. It’s about wanting everyone to feel valued and included.”

In conclusion

While H&M has work to do, we have change to do too. Social impact investor Tariq Fancy says, “It’s on you, on all of us to fix the problem”.

  • Jackie 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 it here
  • Image credits: Supplied from H&M’s online press room and from the H&M Foundation: First three images are from the Conscious Collection 2019, 4th image of Rebecca Early and William McDonough, 5th image is of Arti Zeighani and the last image is of all the Global Change Award 2019 winners
  • The story has been edited to clarify who speaks on behalf of H&M Group and that Global Change Award is a H&M Foundation project