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Special Report

An interview with Helena Helmersson, Head of Sustainability for H&M

We talk about sustainable fashion with Helena Helmersson, Head of Sustainability for H&M.

TEXT: Debbie Spillane
1. What are the biggest challenges currently facing the fashion industry from a sustainability perspective?
Some of the biggest challenges the entire industry face are working conditions and wages at supplier factories, the ability to influence the entire processing chain, i.e. reach further than our own and our suppliers’ operations,  and the long-term availability of natural resources.

For more than 10 years, in order to build a more sustainable fashion future we at H&M are working to run our business in a way that is best - economically, socially and environmentally.

We put a lot of effort into improving working conditions in our supply chain and to find new ways of using resources as responsible and efficiently as possible.

We have accomplished a lot during the past years and going forward we are for example working hard to limit the use of hazardous chemicals within the whole textile industry by committing to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. We invest in different projects that benefit communities across our value chain. One of our projects in Bangladesh aim to educate and provide the garment industry workers with knowledge on how to run negotiations on wages and working conditions, ensure a good dialogue between workers and factory management and how to organize democratic elections. On the raw material side we have set a target that all our cotton should come from sustainable sources by 2020.

2. How does sustainability create better business?
We believe we have a responsibility towards everyone who contributes to our success and to the environment around us.  Actively working to fulfill this responsibility is a prerequisite for being able to maintain quality and profitability in the long term. Stable purchasing and sales markets, in which people are treated with respect and where resources are used responsible are beneficial to us as a buyer, to our suppliers and the workers. To us, this means that we can plan our orders, the suppliers have a more stable production pace which makes it easier to plan the work allocation in the factory. This makes the work rate even and decreases the amount of overtime.

Consumers are increasingly showing an interest in sustainability. Adding sustainability value to our products is therefore an important way of strengthening our customer offering. It is also important from an employer branding perspective.

Given H&M’s size and increasingly global reach, we have a big impact on the world around us. Our scale means that we have the opportunity to promote change well beyond the borders of our own operations. Our vision is that all our operations should be run in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

3. If you could recommend every retail chain to implement one change to improve their sustainability profile, what would that be?
Honest and transparent communication is important, so that consumers can make informed choices.
We strive to be as transparent as possible about the progress we make and the challenges ahead through our annual Sustainability Report. We think that the

report is one important communication tool that strengthens the sustainability profile.

4. How can retailers inspire consumers to make more sustainable choices?
We aim to make it easier for our customers to make an informed and more sustainable choice.
At H&M we offer our customers a continuously growing range of products with an added sustainability value. H&M introduced the concept with Conscious Collection in Spring 2011. The Conscious Collections appear regularly under different themes in our stores accompanied by communication activities. The conscious collections are made of for example organic cotton, recycled polyester, Tencel and organic hemp.

Besides the coordinated Conscious Collections we also offer a constant range of Conscious products.
In our stores, the label "Conscious" highlights all such products, for example those made out of more sustainable raw materials. We also have general information about our sustainability work placed on mirrors in the fitting rooms of our stores.

H&M is an active member of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, working to create a universal index to show the environmental impact and fair labor practices for clothing and footwear production.

We also educate our customers to take good care of their garments, for example by providing garment care instructions on how to help minimize the environmental impact and save natural resources when washing your clothes. By doing so the garments will also last longer.

5. What is the key to ensure fashion is both sustainable and affordable?
For H&M, sustainability is a natural part of doing business and an integral part of our business concept. We have made sustainability the responsibility of all departments in the company. This way we integrate social and environmental concern into the daily decision-making for everyone at H&M.

We are often asked how we can offer fashion at such affordable prices. We are able to do this because we have many years of experience, efficient logistics, strong market knowledge, long-term relationships with our suppliers and as few middlemen as possible. On top of this we put a lot of effort into improving conditions in supplier factories and using natural resources as responsible as possible.

6. What do you think the future holds for the fashion industry?
Sustainability will continue to play an important role. The fashion industry must take responsibility for how people and the environment are affected by their business; the ones who don’t will not survive.
We also recognize that today’s fashion consumers are highly conscious in their choices. They are becoming more and more aware, demanding the best design, quality and sustainability.
Going forward we recognize the need for even further collaboration between other buyers and stakeholders to bring about lasting improvements for the whole fashion industry, that reaches further than the scope of what our business alone can influence.

This interview was conducted with Helena Helmersson in May 2012.
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