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Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

H&M CEO: Reducing Consumption Isn't the Answer

By Jan Lee

The CEO of one of the world's largest clothing retailers thinks that we will be heading the wrong way if we reduce consumption to ward off climate change.

Karl-Johan Persson, who runs the Swedish multinational Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), suggested in an interview with the Guardian that, "If we were to decrease 10 percent to 20 percent of everything we don’t need, the result on the social and economic side would be catastrophic..." Cutting back precipitously would increase worldwide unemployment and poverty, he argued. The challenge, said Persson, is "doing it in a way where you still can have economic growth and jobs creation, while finding the innovations that can limit the damage to the environment.”

The article in the Guardian was noted as containing content that was paid for by H&M. Still, it brings up some valid points about manufacturing challenges in today's retail sector.

In a way, Persson's statements aren't that far away from prevailing attitudes of some of the more popular U.S. clothing manufactures. Levi-Strauss & Co., Patagonia and other clothes producers we've mentioned here have vigorously supported a "circular" economy in which products are used, recycled or reused -- and hopefully most or all of their ingredients are kept out of the landfill. Levi-Strauss & Co.'s recycled denim and Patagonia's Worn Wear initiative both exemplify this idea. So does H&M's own recycling initiative, which issues vouchers in exchange for returned, pre-loved clothing.

But in a day and age when most of our clothes are manufactured through contracted labor in developing nations, the challenge is not only how to use those manufacturing resources most sustainably, but also how to us them in a way that is socially beneficial.

And, unfortunately, Persson's company has the experience to back this statement up. H&M is well known for its philanthropic efforts and its innovative sustainability initiatives. But it has also been embroiled in embarrassing labor issues that have brought workers' rights to the fore.

As one of the world's largest purchasers of Bangladesh-produced clothing, it's been accused of contracting with sweatshops that were audited for improper employment practices. These audits became public after the singer Beyonce agreed to represent the label.

Persson has also made sure that H&M addressed that issue. His company has been unabashed about its use of Bangladesh labor, acknowledging that the country is "one of our most important production markets." To that end, he has worked with political leaders and business owners to push for better labor conditions and, in 2013, pledged a living wage for H&M's Bangladeshi and Cambodian workers. Even though it was not one of the companies that paid for labor at the Rana Plaza, Bangladesh facility at the time of its disastrous collapse, Persson said the company felt that it was important to set an example by establishing better wages.

But ensuring fair labor practices is still only part of the answer for an industry that must, in essence, not only retrain its workers on how to be sustainable, but also gently encourage customers to be more proactive in contributing to that circular economy. The clothing industry of the future will rely on new technology to ensure that products can be repurposed if not recycled.

Popular initiatives like Runway, a Michigan-based competition that encourages fashion designers to come up with unique ways to repurpose old or worn clothing, reflect this concept. But for the large, high-scale clothing retailers like H&M, it will take bolder and leaner concepts that can not only address ingenuity and style, but also the commercial needs of a labor market that, like its employers, need to stay in business to support a sustainable, smarter economy.

Image credit: Bangladesh clothing factory -  Tareq Salahuddin

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee