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H&M is making impressive strides against its own sustainability targets, but how long can it keep growing and its customers keep buying more clothes?
H&M is one of those juggernaut corporations right now, economically unstoppable and mostly a media darling. Established in Sweden in 1947 as a women’s retail store called Hennes (meaning “hers” in English), it added the Mauritz in the 1950s with the acquisition of a men’s outdoor line. The company now includes a growing stable of brands: COS, Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday and the latest addition called Other Stories. Embracing the fast-fashion model, the company has enjoyed tremendous growth such that it is now difficult to escape the big red H&M on stores in large cities of the world.
Over the 12 years that H&M has put out sustainability reports, it has certainly become more fashion-conscious about its reporting style. The first report was a no-frills affair that included a rudimentary code of conduct for suppliers, and GHG emissions reporting. In comparison, the 2013 Conscious Actions report looks and reads more like a 92-page fashion magazine – carefully curated photos, lots of achievement factoids, and short and snappy narrative.
This is not to say there’s no substance. In 2013, H&M follows the same format as it did for its 2012 report, detailing its “Conscious Actions” through the company’s seven core commitments: to provide fashion for conscious consumers; choose and reward responsible partners; be ethical; be climate smart; reduce, reuse and recycle; use natural resources responsibly; and strengthen communities.
In each of these areas H&M registers improvements. It is now the world’s largest user of organic cotton, with 15.8% of its cotton coming from “sustainable” sources, either organic (10.8%) or grown under Better Cotton Initiative rules (5%). H&M’s stated goal is 100% sustainable cotton by 2020. H&M also says it is on track to be making all of its shoes with water-based glue by 2020, with 21% of its shoes – more than 7m pairs – having met that criterion in 2013. It has also introduced in 2013 organic leather, vegetable tanned and sourced from Swedish beef cows.
Areas in which H&M seems sluggish are replacing solvent-based polyurethane with less-toxic alternatives, and in upping renewable energy usage – currently just 18% of H&M’s total electricity use. Also, while commendable that the company committed in 2011 to reducing total emissions by 2015, CO2 emissions rose 9% in 2012-13. Quantified reduction goals post-2015 would also be welcome.
In the report, H&M has a credible materiality matrix, though it would be nice if it came to readers’ attention earlier, rather than at the tail end of the report, in order to set the context of its key impacts.
In 2013, H&M’s most important new initiative is its commitment that all of its strategic suppliers (employing some 850,000 workers) should have improved pay structures that deliver fair living wages in place by 2018. H&M is piloting a process to get better pay structures at factories, two in Bangladesh and one in Cambodia, and has three-year exclusive contracts in place.
While H&M doesn’t completely escape criticism around its approach to the wage issue, it is one of the few fast-fashion companies to have come this far in committing to better wages down the supply chain. Gap, Primark and all the other fast fashion leaders would do well to take note.
In addition, 2013 was the first year H&M tried closed-loop garment production, of a small subset of its denim collection. H&M first collected more than 3,000 tonnes of garments in 2013 from customers through in-store programmes (re-selling some, repurposing some, and recycling others). The usable denim it gathered makes up 20% of the five new denim products – three jeans lines and two jacket lines.
There’s no doubt that H&M is a leader – the report amply demonstrates it. Yet there’s a nagging question. H&M sets its own targets, so while a reading of its report gives a great impression of targets achieved, readers may also be left wondering if fast-fashion, the basis of H&M’s success, can really be sustainable. Once the globe has absorbed all the stores it logically can (H&M is opening 375 this year) can the more than 6 billion of us do the same as Americans do and buy more than 60 outfits and 8 pairs of shoes each year?
The ecological footprint of such consumption feels unsustainable, and eventually H&M may have to slow itself and its customers down. Chief executive Karl-Johan Persson alludes to this in his opening letter when he says that “to continue growing, we may need to consider our planet’s boundaries”. May?
What is also left unsaid is this: how can growth be curtailed and fast-fashion be scaled to earth’s limits? Changing the recipe that brought a business success is a serious internal challenge. H&M may eventually have to do as Patagonia has begun to, and ask its loyal fashionistas to – perish the thought – actually buy less.
Follows GRI? Uses core G4 guidelines.
Assurance? Yes, by Ernst & Young.
Materiality analysis? Yes.
Targets? Yes, though many remain to be set.
Seeks feedback? Yes, email address of a real person to contact.
Key strength: Comprehensive approach, clearly a front-runner in the fashion industry.
Chief weakness: The need to grapple with sustainability of fast-fashion as a concept and how to evolve or move away from it.
Pleasant surprise: Layout and design of report is uncommonly good.
April Streeter is an associate with One Stone.
clothing communications report csr communications H&M sustainability reporting