H&M’s latest collaboration isn’t one you’d expect. The Swedish high-street retailer is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund on a “game-changing” water-management plan to minimize its footprint. The three-year effort is as much a matter of corporate stewardship as it is self-interest. Nearly 2.7 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, live in river basins that experience water scarcity during at least one month of the year, according to the environmental group’s 2012 Living Planet report. Roughly a third of the units responsible for H&M’s wet processes are situated in areas that are now, or will be by 2025, extremely dry.

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“Water is a key resource for H&M and we are committed to ensure that water is used responsibly throughout our value chain,” Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M, says in a statement. “We do this to minimize risks in our operations, to protect the environment and to secure the availability of water. We are proud of the partnership with WWF which we hope will inspire others to follow.”

The first-of-its-kind strategy will roll out across all 48 of the retailer’s international markets.

The joint, first-of-its-kind strategy, which will roll out across all 48 of the retailer’s international markets, is expected to involve 94,000 H&M employees, 750 direct suppliers, and many fabric manufacturers. To promote more-sustainable choices among its designers and buyers, H&M will provide additional training in the water impacts of raw-material production, as well as wet processes for different styles. WWF and H&M will also work in conjunction with public-policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, water institutions, and other stakeholders to support better management of river basins in China and Bangladesh, particularly the Yangtze and Brahmaputra Rivers, respectively.

“This partnership marks an evolution in the corporate approach to water,” says Jim Leape, director general of WWF International. “H&M understands that its long-term success depends on access to adequate water supplies. It also understands that its social license to operate depends on being a good neighbour and good steward of shared resources.”

H&M has been on the charm offensive of late. The company, which was named the world’s No. 1 buyer of organic cotton in November, recently unveiled the world’s first global clothes-recycling program. As a member of Greenpeace’s “Detox” vanguard, H&M also initiated a ban on perfluorinated compounds, a class of toxic chemicals used primarily to repel water and oil in outerwear, effective this month.

Not that the retailer hasn’t endured its own share of controversy, of course. In October, a Swedish news program accused H&M of not doing enough to prevent sweatshop-like conditions in Cambodia and elsewhere.

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