The world of fashion is increasingly under the environmental spotlight as the impact of the industry becomes apparent from pesticides in cotton through to working conditions in Bangladesh. Top of the hit list are fast fashion chains with campaigns questioning whether the pile it high sell it cheap model can be environmental sustainable.
To find out more I headed to Stockholm to interview the leader of H&M Karl-Johan Persson. We embarked on a frank debate with no PR person on-hand to fend off awkward questions. I wasn't expecting this openness.
Fast fashion companies can respond to ethical questions by hiding in the pack or by engaging in debate knowing there will be weaknesses which can be exposed. H&M is firmly in this second category - why? One reason is the heritage of the company which was founded by Karl-Johan Persson's grandfather. He believes this family connection means that short-term financial reasons are not the sole driver of decision-making as there is a deep interest in how healthy the company will be for future generations.
Focus on the longer term was a recurring theme. For instance, H&M is the world's largest purchaser of organic cotton which it claims is a costly choice driven by environmental considerations not financial benefit.
The company has a long-term commitment to working in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia. How had they reacted to the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,129 people? Karl-Johan Persson pointed out that H&M was not present at this factory and had a strong track record of working on fire and building safety. The disaster was tragic but has forced greater collaboration between fashion companies, improved inspection regimes and secured more investment. This included a new safety accord which H&M was one of the first companies to sign.
Exploration of the supply chain revealed huge complexity highlighting the dangers of black and white analysis. Factories in developing countries supply a range of companies from high-end brands through to mass market. Shop price tags may vary but working conditions under which they are produced are the same. It is not uncommon for one factory to be supplying up to 20 brands. Creating change requires collaboration: not easy when some brands would rather not highlight their supply chain - H&M has an open supplier list. I feel certain that most UK consumers are unaware of this and assume garment workers making high-priced top brand clothing have different working conditions to their fast fashion equivalents.
Complexity makes it difficult to get a clear grasp of whether H&M is a leader so I asked Karl-Johan Persson to succinctly tell his customers why his claims are believable. He highlighted meetings with the Prime Ministers of Cambodia and Bangladesh pushing for increased wages which directly affects costs. He feels that working at this national level is essential as it can be counter-productive to just focus on the pay of garment factory workers. He believes that carrying out unilateral pay rises for selected employees driven by western consumer campaigns can do more damage than good leading to corruption and resentment. Instead the country's overall pay structure must be respected.
I sensed a growing frustration that H&M was being lumped together as a fast fashion baddie when Karl-Johan Persson clearly feels they are ahead of the pack in certain areas. Why was this? He accepted that H&M has much to do and needs to be better at telling their story. However he feels more can be done for customers to make informed decisions. He called for governments to make sustainability reporting mandatory for companies above a certain size. He wants customers to be able to look at a hand tag on a garment and immediately see the social and environmental impact of a product and H&M is working towards this through the Higg Index initiative. The predominant message was facts rather than emotion is needed in the debate.
Finally our conversation shifted to the vexed question of consumption. Karl-Johan Persson has strong views. For him economic growth is essential to take people out of poverty. He referenced a World Bank report stating that growth in Bangladesh could be as high as eight percent per year for the next ten years with the creation of one million new jobs. The report highlighted that continued rapid growth in the textile industry is a prerequisite if this forecast is to become reality.
I challenged whether this growth could ever be sustainable. He replied that H&M wants to grow but with 100% of their energy from renewable resources and with new technologies that create a close loop economy which don't create environmental harm.
The challenge for H&M is that these ambitions have led to consumers placing less value on the clothes they buy, leading to more waste. The frenzied madness of Black Friday perfectly captures this consumerism in action. It will be intriguing to see how H&M squares this circle. How adventurous will they become in actively engaging customers in their sustainability campaigns? Can they persuade people to truly value the cheap clothes they buy extending their life and ensuring they are recycled at end of use.
The openness of Karl-Johan Persson and his willingness to debate the wider impact of the company is impressive. The heritage of the company places it in a strong position to embed sustainability into its strategy and big steps have already been taken in certain areas. However there has to be a question whether the overall business model can be sustainable. If it can, H&M will have to be even bolder and drag a large number of laggard fast fashion companies with them.