Today, clean freshwater is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or is otherwise unavailable for consumption. Climate change is altering patterns of both weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others. According to the WWF, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may actually face water shortages.
In the textile industry, water plays a particularly critical role. Growing cotton, dyeing fabrics, creating washed-out looks and washing clothes at home all have an impact on water resources. It takes about three years’ worth of drinking water to make your favorite cotton t-shirt using conventional manufacturing practices. It takes up to 10,000 liters of water to make one pair of jeans, the equivalent of flushing your toilet approximately 2,000 times. And yet while textile supply chains are heavily dependent on water, many production and processing sites are located in the world’s most water-stressed and polluted river basins.
H&M sold +22USDBn worth of clothes globally last year. In light of the increasing scarcity of water, it is in the company’s best interest to lead efforts to be more water conscious in its supply chain. H&M has already been working on water issues in the past. In fact, it established a partnership with WWF for the first time in 2013 to focus on water stewardship. The goal was to raise awareness, improve responsible water use throughout H&M’s entire supply chain, and inspire other companies to take action towards more responsible water management. In the words of H&M’s CEO, “We do this to minimize risks in our operations, to protect the environment and to secure the availability of water. We are proud of the partnership with WWF which we hope will inspire others to follow.”
In 2016, this partnership was renewed for five years and grew to also include climate action and a strategic dialogue. As for water stewardship, going forward, the partnership will focus on taking its achievements one step further, with an increased focus on collective stakeholder engagement. For example, both entities aim to work together to bring stakeholders from business, civil society and politics together to contribute to more sustainable water management in river basins in China.
Even if some have criticized H&M’s position based on the argument that it cannot set a new standard for sustainability provided that its business model, fast fashion, is structurally unsustainable, I am a strong believer that H&M is a pioneer in the industry for its sustainability policies. In order to take their impact to the next level, there are two key areas I would encourage the company’s management to focus on. First, H&M should be open and more specific about their own goals in order to ensure efforts are targeted and progress is effectively assessed. An article from HBR states that “everyone who works for an organization must be familiar with the banal SMART acronym for setting goals. Goals must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.” I see tangible value in H&M and WWF publicly setting concrete objectives for their five year partnership to enhance commitment and drive employees motivation.
Second, H&M should encourage the thousands of SMEs in the industry to improve their water efficiency. Although there are several big players, the fashion industry is still extremely fragmented (market share of the top 5 apparel brands is below 20% in key apparel countries and only in the EU are there more than 170k fashion companies). As a result, the real shift in industry standards regarding water consumption H&M is pursuing will only be achieved if the entire range of smaller players buy into the idea and are able to execute it at a smaller scale. Drawing on its own learnings, H&M could launch mentorship programs for smaller businesses to guide, support and navigate the uncertainties that a challenge of such magnitude entails.
As stated above, H&M is seriously committed to sustainable fashion and has taken a circular approach to how fashion is made and used based on three levers: a more effective use of resources (including water), support of innovations within recycling technologies and an increased use of sustainable materials (such as organic cotton). Interestingly, growing organic cotton actually requires more water than conventional water, and the lower yields of organic crops have even been linked to higher greenhouse-gas emissions on the industrial farms producing them. Is the fashion industry’s impact on climate change therefore inevitable? How can H&M, and more broadly, fashion companies, ensure they are actually being “climate positive” with the different environmentally friendly initiatives they launch? (781 words)
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