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FIVE QUESTIONS FOR HELENA HELMERSSON, HEAD OF CSR AT H&M

You started as new head of CSR at H&M in 2010; what is your vision?

Improving the environmental and social sustainability of our supply chain has been a major focus of our work since the ’90s and it will remain a core part of our program. My long-term vision here is to see our suppliers and their employees able to take full ownership of their sustainability issues.

Although I know that there is still a long way to go, we are making progress.

Although I know that there is still a long way to go, we are making progress. But today, sustainability is about so much more than just our direct suppliers. We have already taken important steps to reduce impacts further down our value chain.

Alongside our goal for all the cotton we use to be produced more sustainably by 2020, we have started to look at the carbon and water use impact of our products across their entire life cycle.

Being at the forefront of sustainability will mean aiming both to be carbon neutral and to produce zero waste.

In the future, being at the forefront of sustainability will mean aiming both to be carbon-neutral and to produce zero waste. That has to be our ultimate aim. I think it is important to bring our customers along with us on this journey. We need to make them more aware of all the work we do to be more sustainable. Fashion should be fun and we want our customers to be able to rely on us taking our responsibility seriously. We want to inspire them to adapt their own behavior too; for example, by lowering the temperature at which they wash their clothes.

H&M, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, organic fashion, organic clothing, fast fashion

What do you think are your biggest challenges ahead in this position?

Remaining at the forefront of sustainability in our industry is a challenge. The crucial factor is how well we manage to extend our work to improve social and environmental conditions further down our value chain. The other big challenge is to tackle complex structural issues that underlie much of our supply chain, many of which require an industry-wide response.

Many of the complex structural issues that underlie our supply chain require an industry-wide response

The discussion about minimum wages in Bangladesh last year is one such example. There, engagement with other buyers and using our joint influence over lawmakers was needed in order for us to make a difference. Taking an active role in public policy, working further towards collaborative actions and building bridges that lead to lasting improvements are some of the things we will put even more focus on in the future.

H&M, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, organic fashion, organic clothing, fast fashion

How sustainable can H&M be when offering garments that cost so little?

We can offer our customers a more sustainable choice. We can make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people working in our supply chain and to the environment and communities around us. We work hard to make this difference bigger every day. Today there are a lot of companies offering garments at affordable prices.

Improving conditions and creating a leaner supply chain will give us competitive advantages in the long run.

We believe that improving conditions and creating a leaner supply chain that is more efficient, stable, and sustainable will give us competitive advantages in the long run, so this work is not incompatible with offering our customers the best price.

H&M, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, organic fashion, organic clothing, fast fashion

If that’s the case, how do sales prices and the wages of garment workers relate to each other?

Many people seem to believe that low prices are automatically related to bad working conditions and low wages. In fact, today, many garments are produced in low-cost countries, regardless of their sales price.

Wages for workers are the same no matter which brand’s order they work on. What matters is improving conditions.

The truth is that the price of a garment does not tell us much about how it is produced. We share many of our suppliers with a lot of other brands. Wages for the workers are the same no matter which brand’s order they work on. What matters is the effort companies make to improve conditions. This makes minimum wages in the supply chain a competition-neutral factor and, as we did just recently in Bangladesh, we will continue to use our influence and demand minimum wages be increased wherever they are not enough to live on.

With more than 60 years’ experience in this business, we have learned a lot about those factors that make it possible for us to offer fashion at such affordable prices. And we have continuously invested in strengthening these.

We cut out middlemen wherever possible and instead focus on direct and stable relations with our suppliers.

Our size and our ability to buy large volumes play an important role, as well. We cut out middlemen wherever possible and instead focus on long-term, direct, and stable relations with our suppliers. This close cooperation helps us to learn from each other and to cooperate in a more efficient way.

Having a growing business partner like H&M allows our suppliers to plan their business development better and we support this through active capacity planning with them. This means that our suppliers can set their prices on the basis of a lower level of risk and we, in turn, can pass these benefits on to our customers—a win-win situation.

H&M, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, organic fashion, organic clothing, fast fashion

Talking about win-win situations, how does your sustainability work contribute to better business?

Associating social and environmental improvements with profit is actually not hard; and it’s not only the obvious things, like energy and resource-efficiency leading to cost savings.

I strongly believe that our customers will increasingly appreciate our efforts to offer more sustainable products.

Treating our employees and business partners in a fair way helps us to retain talent and build long-term and trusting relationships. As cotton is our most important raw material, we work hard to gain influence over this stage further back in our value chain. Supporting those in our value chain to become better at what they do makes their business more sustainable and our supply more stable and efficient.

What is more, I strongly believe that our customers will increasingly appreciate our efforts to offer more sustainable products, as well. So, by integrating sustainable thinking throughout our company, we can gain advantages that help us to remain competitive and continue to deliver quality and fashion at the best price.

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