Just a few months ago, fashion retailer H&M made waves by hooking up with cutting edge chanteuse Lana Del Rey, and how do you follow that act? Well, given H&M’s rather impressive record on sustainability, you form a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to develop a plan for ensuring sustainable water use throughout your supply chain. The strategy, which H&M describes as a “game changer in the fashion industry,” will be based on an evaluation of H&M’s operations, which the company undertook with WWF in 2012.
Urgent need for sustainable water use
H&M is a good example of a company that is not simply responding to current environmental issues, but is also looking several years ahead and planning for a world in which basic resources are growing increasingly scarce.
Water is a particularly urgent area of focus for manufacturers like H&M. According to WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report, about 40 percent of the world’s population lives in river basins that are already experiencing severe water scarcity at least part of the year. By 2025, about one-third of H&M’s “wet processing” units will be located in areas of extreme water scarcity.
H&M’s water sustainability strategy
H&M has been actively pursuing water-related initiatives for about 10 years, but the new partnership with WWF puts it on a different plane altogether. According to WWF, H&M is the first fashion company to apply a comprehensive conservation strategy across its entire business.
The company plans to implement the new strategy in all of its 48 national markets, including 750 direct suppliers and fabric manufacturers.
The strategy also calls for improving water efficiency within H&M’s operations, and using the company’s high public profile to encourage its customers to adopt more responsible water use habits.
The effort includes educating all 94,000 H&M employees on water issues, as well as deploying about 1,000 employees to implement the strategy (mainly in buying offices, production and sales).
The initial push will include the 190 suppliers that make most of H&M’s products, located the Yangtze river basin in China and Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. In addition to encouraging water responsibility by these suppliers, H&M will also support WWF’s conservation projects in these two river basins.
Green is the new black
With its trend-of-the-season image, H&M is perfectly positioned to help trigger a shift in public perceptions about sustainability. It wasn’t too long ago that conservation was linked in the public mind with sacrifice and discomfort, and H&M has a great opportunity to show how environmental responsibility can go hand-in-glove with the enjoyment that so many people get from keeping up with the latest trends.
The company has already made some inroads in that area. A couple of years ago it became the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world. It has also been launching recycled and organic clothing lines for several years, and it stepped up those initiatives last year with the introduction of a glamorous, red carpet-themed line.
Just last month, H&M also announced the launch of a worldwide clothing recycling initiative, in which customers in all of its 48 markets can conveniently drop off their used H&M clothes at any H&M store.
Who is the most sustainable fashion company of them all?
While H&M leads the fashion industry in sustainable water strategies according to WWF, it’s only fair to note the outstanding contributions that Levi Strauss & Co. has making to corporate environmental leadership and social responsibility.
In a speech back in May 2011, Levi CEO and President John Anderson described how apparel companies can and should take it to the next level, by moving beyond site compliance to embrace the daily lives of workers in communities that host a company’s facilities.
Under Anderson’s plan, Levi’s will coordinate its efforts with the United Nations Millennium Development anti-poverty initiatives.
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