Last week, I found myself wondering how some of the most interesting conversations on sustainability in business and sustainable consumption take place in Times Square of all places. Yet, last week it happened again – this time it was a panel hosted by H&M at Vogue Headquarters on the efforts within the fashion industry to become more sustainable.
As the moderator, Simon Collins, Dean of Fashion, The New School for Design (disclosure: I also teach at The New School) mentioned at the beginning of the panel, we should give credit to H&M and Vogue for hosting a free and open conversation which some other fashion companies tend to avoid. The credit for making this discussion interesting and lively should also go to Collin himself, who wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions, and to the participants who made a sincere effort to answer them.
The participants included Helena Helmersson, Global Head of Sustainability at H&M, Catarina Midby, Head of Fashion and Sustainability Communication at H&M, Julie Gilhart, fashion industry consultant, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, co-founder of Loomstate, Bruno Pieters, founder of Honest By and Jasmin Malik Chua, Managing Editor of Ecouterre.
The discussion was mostly about what fashion companies do to be more sustainable and even more what they do to educate and encourage their customers to adopt sustainable practices. Naturally, it focused on H&M and its role in changing consumer behavior.
“We continue to make fashion accessible and affordable for more people, that’s really what it’s all about,” H&M’s Helena Helmersson explained. “We have a huge responsibility to make the products themselves more and more sustainable and also to engage consumers and again to make it easy for them to make more conscious choices, like for example now when we’re launching the garment collecting initiative to bring back used garments and give them incentives for doing that,” she added.
Catarina Midby also mentioned that H&M looks to raise the awareness of consumers and get them to act more responsibly when it comes to caring about their garments, from washing and drying them more sustainably to the product end life, ensuring that no garment will be landfilled.
These answers certainly reflect H&M’s noble goals, but Collins wanted to know more. He asked Helmersson what does a company like H&M actually do to teach people, wondering if you need to have David Beckham with “wash cold” on his chest to get people’s attention.
Helmersson replied that H&M is using its stores and website to communicate with its customers, as well as through the garments it sells – for example, using conscious labels or developing with Ginetex new care labels (clevercare labels) with relevant information. Collins wondered then when was the last time anyone has read a care label, and only few in the audience raised their hands. Yet, Midby was quick to point out that according to H&M’s survey, it’s more than 50 percent of consumers.
Helmersson added that H&M started to measure the change in consumer behavior, setting internal goals on its efforts to make customers more aware. She candidly said, “I don’t think we have all the answers today but if we’re setting these kinds of targets, I think we will find different ways to get there.”
And let’s not forget the need to make this behavioral change easy – Jasmin Malik Chua said that people will always do the easy thing, so the idea is to make the right thing the easy thing. That’s why, she added, H&M’s recycling initiative, where you can bring your old garments to any H&M store, is great as it makes recycling easy for the consumer.
But can it be done if consumers don’t care too much about sustainability? There was some agreement among the panel’s participants that in the future we’ll see a change driven by a new generation (Millennials) that is more aware and educated, but still, Collins asked, what do we do in the meantime? The only answer came from Midby who brought up again the importance of offering sustainable options at an affordable price. Collins set the bar even higher, asking the panel how we get consumers to buy less stuff, and Scott Mackinlay Hahn provided an answer that was actually a good fit – make higher quality products, adding that it might be a problem for companies like H&M which looks to grow their business.
Another question that came from the audience also related to the seeming contradiction between the concept of a fast fashion company and the attempt to be more sustainable. Helmersson explained that H&M tries to apply a decoupling strategy, where the company aims to expand while reducing its impact. As part of this effort, the company tries to close the loop, she explained, with its recycling initiatives, getting old garments back into its supply chain. Collins also added that one thing to think about, is if consumers would actually buy less if there wasn’t fast fashion.
The conversation ended with participants providing brief advice on how to move into the right direction. Collins’ point summarized it all by saying that if the current situation is not sustainable, then it is everyone’s fault. “It’s up to us to make a statement with every single thing we buy and every conversation we have, and don’t let anyone off the hook about it,” he concluded.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.