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Fast fashion giant H&M appoints former sustainability head as CEO; activists call for a different business model

Industry observers hope H&M Group’s new CEO, Helena Helmersson, will push for more durable fashion and steer the company away from overproduction.

In an appointment that created buzz within sustainability circles last week, Swedish fast fashion giant H&M named its former sustainability head and chief operating officer (COO), Helena Helmersson, to the top job.

Helena Helmersson

Helena Helmersson. Image: Mattias Bardå/ H&M Group

Helmersson is the 73-year-old company’s first female chief executive, but what has caught the eye of activists and fashion industry insiders is the 46 year-old’s career path in the company that she joined in 1997.

Helmersson, who started as an economist in H&M’s purchasing department, was head of sustainability for five years from 2010 to 2014. She also had a stint in Bangladesh as its human resource manager at the production office in Dhaka, and was previously based in Hong Kong as the supply chain manager for lingerie.

She was COO for just over a year before her appointment as CEO. 

Observers called Helmersson’s appointment a positive move and hoped it would accelerate the fashion giant’s efforts to tackle the environmental and social impact of its business.

“For too long, sustainability has been a niche area of the fashion industry, and her appointment sends a great message about, one hopes, bringing sustainability even more into the boardroom,” said Christina Dean, founder of Hong Kong-based environmental non-governmental organisation Redress and The R Collective. Redress seeks to reduce waste in the Asian fashion industry, while The R Collective is an upcycled fashion brand that also focuses on social impact.

Helmersson’s work in sustainability means she must have integral understanding and on-the-ground experience of challanges and opportunities in this area, said Dean. 

“The fashion industry is crying out for more diversity at the C-suite and board level, so this female CEO appointment sends a positive message about female leadership, at a time when various research shows that a more balanced and diverse leadership team makes more holistic management decisions,” she added.

Advocacy group Greenpeace hopes environmental issues will become a significant driving force for changing H&M’s business model “away from overproduction and fast fashion, towards strategies that slow down the rate that fashion is produced, consumed and thrown away”, said Viola Wohlgemuth, Greenpeace Germany’s consumerism campaigner.

H&M is among the 80 brands and suppliers that have committed to Greenpeace’s Detox campaign to phase out hazardous chemicals in clothing production. The campaign, which began in 2011, challenged companies to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of their manufacturing supply chains, and commit to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.

In a 2018 report, Greenpeace called H&M, Inditex, Benetton and Fast Retailing pack leaders in setting a blacklist of hazardous chemicals and checking their manufacturing facilities for compliance.

But overproduction is a problem in the industry and, in 2018, H&M was reported to have US$4.3 billion in unsold clothes.

Wohlgemuth noted H&M’s recent initiatives in clothing repair and rental, and called on it to further reduce its environmental impact and resources used.

“This should start with producing more durable fashion, providing repair services and encouraging customers to use their clothes for longer,” she said.

“Increasing the length of time that clothes are worn and reducing the quantities that are produced have the biggest impact on limiting the environmental, health and social impacts of fashion (in both its production and in post-consumer waste).”

‘Tackle consumption itself’

The fashion industry is said to generate 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, or about 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide a year.

According to Kim Hellström, strategy lead for climate and water at H&M Group, the company currently emits 18 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year, which come from sources such as raw materials and the boilers used to generate heat to wash, steam and dye fabrics.

H&M aims to be climate-positive by 2040, reducing more greenhouse gas emissions than what its whole value chain emits. Other targets include using 100 per cent recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

Sustainable fashion mentor and social impact strategist Laura Francois said Helmersson’s appointment as CEO by no means indicates a further commitment on the company’s part. But it could increase stakeholder engagement and buy-in for action towards fundamental labour rights and production practices.

The company must continuously re-examine its business model and ultimately focus on sustainability from the ground up, she said. “Commendable effort has been made but as we enter the final decade in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, H&M needs to accelerate their solutions without ignoring the central cause for concern—consumption itself,” said Francois.

Dean said she hopes for circular economy breakthroughs from H&M. “We can’t continue seeing businesses create so many products using virgin materials, so a key focus area that I’d like to see come to life is scaling up the circular economy, should the major technical and infrastructure challenges, like collecting and recycling at scale, be overcome,” she said.

In a press release on 30 January, Helmersson said she looked forward to strengthen H&M’s financial development in the short and long term. “There is great potential to expand with existing and new brands, with new types of partnerships and to continue leading the development towards a sustainable fashion industry,” she said.

Helmersson took over from Karl-Johan Persson—the grandson of H&M’s founder—who has been nominated by his father, Stefan, to take over as chairman of the board.

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