H&M’s continued commitment to sustainability in a post-Covid world

Sustainability has emerged as one of the most discussed issues in the fashion industry in recent years, with major brands regularly setting targets to reduce their impact on the environment across global supply chains. This includes plans to reduce carbon emissions and the use of natural materials across entire ecosystems. But with the Covid-19 pandemic bringing about unprecedented challenges to the whole of retail, and fashion in particular, the fear is that sustainability could suddenly fall off the agenda for many retailers, primarily focused on short-term survival.   

Not so according to Anna Gedda, chief sustainability officer at H&M, speaking at the Collision Web Summit this week, who believes there will be renewed pressure from consumers to accelerate sustainability efforts as a result of their experiences in the pandemic. She says: “We can start to see that customers are becoming even more aware about their sustainability impact – what is really important to them and how they want to live their lives.”

Practical solutions

But this has to be more than just words and sentiment; practical solutions are required to avoid accusations of so-called ‘greenwashing’, which has been levelled at the sector from some quarters. “There is a scepticism towards to fashion industry and that makes me even more eager to show that it is possible to have a sustainable fashion company and that there are solutions to get there,” states Gedda.

All of this will hopefully ensure fashion brands such as H&M continue to keep their feet on the pedal in regard to reducing their environmental impact, even in a post-Covid world. However, there are additional challenges in doing so aside from loss of revenue. One of these is the high levels of clothing stock being held by many retailers as a result of store closures in the past few months, which could easily go to waste. Gedda reveals H&M is taking a range of measures to ensure this is not the case, including looking to sell clothes in different seasons and relocalising stock between different markets and stores.

Encouragingly, Gedda confirms that the retailer will continue with its vision to develop a circular business model, which includes ensuring that all the materials it uses are sustainably sourced or recycled by 2030. Meeting such an ambitious target requires new and radical ways of thinking; for instance, H&M is currently testing new businesses in areas such as rental, repair and refurbishment.

“In a circular economy it’s about making sure we continue to use the same resources over and over again,” explains Gedda. “So circularity for us is the whole life cycle, it’s about how you design, what material you use, how it is processed, and how does the customer take care of the product to make sure it lasts as long as possible. And ultimately, making sure that nothing goes to waste and is being brought back into the system.”

Enabling customers to play an active role in achieving better levels of sustainability is crucial to this ambition. Gedda describes how H&M are increasingly using technology to be open about the impact of their products on the environment. Last year it introduced a new transparency label on all its products, allowing customers to go online and discover which country and the type of factory they have been made in, as well as information about the material used and advice on preserving the product for as long as possible. “The key is to make it easy for customers to do the right thing; to be informed, but also to make sustainable choices,” she notes.

Collaboration

Fundamentally, however, there is only so much individual retailers can do to make a truly substantial difference in the globalised fashion industry. There must be close collaboration between the various stakeholders in the supply chain, and between retailers themselves to make a noticeable improvement. And there are a number of examples of this occurring recently, including a new collaboration between Adidas and Allbirds announced last month which seeks to help reduce the footwear industry’s carbon footprint.

Other players can make a major impact too. Earlier this month, tech giant Google revealed it is partnering with WWF Sweden to create an environmental data platform to encourage the fashion industry to make more responsible sourcing decisions.

But there must also be greater co-operation between brands and policy-makers to truly deliver on sustainability promises. Gedda points out, for example, that many countries in which the fashion supply chain operates are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for their energy needs. “Even if we wanted to change our supply chain, to make sure our suppliers only use renewable energy, with an infrastructure like that it is simply not possible for us to make this change,” she says.

There is clearly a lot of progress being made in the fashion industry in bringing about more sustainable practices, which will ultimately benefit everyone. It is important to ensure that this momentum is not lost as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, where there are clearly other priorities for fashion retailers. It seems likely though that consumers will apply pressure to ensure this does not happen, driven by an increased desire to create a more sustainable world.

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