H&M’s Bold New Journey to ‘Climate Positive’

An audacious corporate goal is one a company doesn’t yet know how to reach. A goal without a plan means a potential failure, after all, and no company wants a failure. But H&M correctly understands that the stakes are high enough, when it comes to the global threat of climate change, that it needs to try.

Today, the apparel company released its 2016 sustainability report outlining several new goals including a commitment to use 100 percent recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials by 2030 and to become climate positive throughout its entire value chain by 2040.

The “entire value chain” bit is key. You’ll see a lot of corporations make promises that sound quite bold — 100 percent renewables or 100 percent carbon neutral by such-and-such time. We never hesitate to applaud because we need the small steps too, but the value chain commitments are the most meaningful because they speak to a company’s total impact. In the case of H&M, the directly owned facilities are mostly stores and office buildings, while the value chain includes the growing of cotton, manufacturing of polyester, sewing and shipping of garments and even what happens to them in customers homes and at the end of their lives.

Today I’m on the ground in Stockholm to help the apparel retailer’s team figure out what “climate resilience” means for them and how H&M can most effectively serve as a “climate sink” in the years to come. If those are new terms for you, you’re not alone. You’ll be seeing more and more of them in the months to come as we all come to terms with the fact that we’ve missed the lifeboat for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Now, we need to figure out how to adapt, which is a little bit scary since plans must be made for responding to unknown risks — storms of increasing strength, dangerous temperature swings and sea level rises. Climate resilience is a system’s ability to adapt to these great risks and unknowns.

For H&M and other apparel retailers, resilience means planning for likely shipping delays to stores worldwide; spiking costs for raw materials (the price of water-intensive cotton will rise as the costs for key inputs rises and the price to manufacture polyester, made from petroleum, could rise as well); and even manufacturing concerns as garment workers down the supply chain live in some of the areas that will be greatly impacted by sea level rise and high-velocity storms. H&M is starting today in Stockholm at the Change Makers lab, where I’m facilitating a session on Achieving Climate Positive Fashion with many leading experts on climate resilience, systems thinking and design.

Climate positive, of course, is a system that has a positive impact vis a vis the risk of global warming. Renewable energy producers are climate positive, as are methane capture projects, refrigerant recovery businesses, sustainable forestry projects and the like. A carbon sink is a project that captures carbon or other global warming pollutants from the atmosphere or avoids it’s release, with the explicit purpose of mitigating climate change. These projects include wetland protection or restoration, sustainable forestry projects, biochar and healthy soil. Innovative projects include cement, and, in the case of the fashion industry, projects like smog jewelry that clean the air as they adorn wearers.

Regular readers will have already connected the dots and will understand that climate resilience makes business sense for *any* carbon-intensive company. That includes H&M with its global logistics, and a commitment to customers that they’ll find new fashions in the store every week.

H&M’s core value proposition is at risk in a world with sea level rise and intense storms. But H&M’s commitment to climate positivity and investing in carbon sinks inside and outside their supply chain make the company global leaders; activists, really, because they will be operating in fits and starts along the way.

The path to carbon positivity remains uncertain. But it will more than likely include H&M’s leading commitment to close the loop on fashion and figure out how to turn old, worn-out clothes into new ones without resorting to virgin fibers. This will substantially reduce the climate impact of production.

Of course, H&M and other retailers will need to account for the remaining impact and shipping that will always be present for a manufacturer. This will take place via investing in worthy projects outside the company’s direct scope (like the forestry projects mentioned above) and, one hopes, sharing research and best practices with other retailers. For it is only through collaboration and innovation that climate “woke” retailers can hope to truly address the real elephant in the room: consumerism.

Stay tuned for an exclusive report on the climate resilience conversation at today’s change maker event.

Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart

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Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and a degree in Sociology from Pitzer College. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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