We need to make it easier for customers to grasp what is sustainable

From the environment to working conditions, the fashion industry has many sustainability issues to tackle, but one that’s particularly important is fair pay. H&M is part of a group of brands that have pledged to tackle the complexities of the subject with the aim of giving the workers in their factories a decent living wage. The Swedish brand is testing how to best achieve a fair living wage and improve the working conditions in three model factories, one in Cambodia and two in Bangladesh. After seeing impressive results from the first year, H&M is now planning to scale this up to more factories.

Make it last sat down with H&M’s Head of Sustainability, Helena Helmersson, before she joined Guardian Sustainable Business to co-host a debate on the issues surrounding fair wages in fashion with a panel including NGOs, journalists and sustainability experts.


Campaign image from H&M’s latest Conscious Collection – with focus on denim

H&M has a longer history than many brands for tackling sustainable issues – why is this?

– That is because it’s a very value-based company. When Erling [Persson] started H&M in 1947 he didn’t talk about ‘sustainability’ but for him it was very important to run a business that was ethical. And to a big extent it’s still a family company – they own the majority of the shares, Karl-Johan [Persson] is the CEO so the values are super strong within H&M which means we should really try to be good citizens, take responsibility for the environment. And I would guess that that to some extent comes from a Swedish perspective, or a Nordic perspective maybe – we are very used to social dialogues, strong unions, taking care of the environment.

Where does your personal passion for sustainability come from – and why fashion?

– I started working for H&M in 1997 – 17 and a half years ago! So it’s the only employer I’ve had and I come from a home where these things are important as well, when it comes to taking responsibility for the environment – doing small stuff at home makes you pretty aware. But I think the big thing that happened to me where the interest really grew was when I moved to Bangladesh. I lived in Dhaka for two years from 2006-2007 and I got very proud when I saw what we actually do at the factories and what kind of impact we have. So I think that after that when I [was asked] start to work with sustainability I really didn’t hesitate.

How long before sustainable fashion becomes as normal as free range chicken or Fair Trade chocolate?

– I think we need to make it easier for customers to grasp what’s sustainable. For example we’re working together with a big coalition of brands on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The vision is that it’s going to be a label on a product – as we show the price on a garment, the customers should be able to get the sustainability of a garment. And if a customer wants to learn more we hope to be able to do that on the web. That will be years away, but I think it’s really promising because I’ve never seen such a big collaboration before. In the meantime we’re working with the Conscious Collection and that really has been a success – it’s a very good initiative that shows that more sustainable fashion can be really high fashion, it can be affordable and it can be for all.

What are your proudest achievements?

– I would choose the garment collecting – we’re the first brand that really made that scaleable so all customers can return their garments to us. And then it’s the fair living wage road map and there I think we’re really taking the lead on a question that is super complex to deal with. And I’m proud that were doing it in a very collaborative, inclusive way, because we know we can’t make it a success ourselves. We have to work together with other brands but also with other stakeholders… governments, unions, suppliers, they really need to work with all of us to make this happen. It’s not just up to brands to make it a success, but there’s a lot we can do. We have started a very interesting journey with great results but we have challenges, we’re not done.

Read more about H&M’s work with fair living wages here

Words by Phoebe Frangoul

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