H&M’s Helena Helmersson on Conscious Collection and Sustainability

h&m head of corporate social social responsibility on sustainability
Photo courtesy of H&M
Feel-good fashion: A lace dress from H&M's Fall 2011 Conscious Collection

When you think fast fashion, sustainability isn't usually a word that comes to mind—but the head of corporate social responsibility at H&M is doing everything she can to change that.

Helena Helmersson, who's been with the retail giant for over a decade, has worked in Bangladesh and Hong Kong and spent time in the production, buying, and human resources departments before settling into her current position.

Her job? Making H&M’s entire operation sustainable—from sourcing to how consumers can use the company’s products in the most efficient way—is clearly an enormous task, but one that Helmersson is extremely passionate about.

The company launched the Conscious Collection earlier this year as part of its sustainability efforts, and the initiative has been growing slowly but surely; new looks hit select stores October 6, and a holiday offering is slated to launch later this year.

The collection incorporates materials like organic and recycled cotton, wool, linen, and polyester, and retails at the same price point as H&M's main lines.

FashionEtc chatted with the executive about the company’s challenges and goals, how H&M stays on track, and why organic cotton doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Tell me a little bit about your background in the industry.

I started at this position in December last year, but I’ve been working at H&M for 14 years. I had been working in fashion, in the buying office, for many years, and then I moved to Bangladesh. I stayed there for two years, working in HR, and then I moved to Hong Kong where I stayed two and a half years being responsible for underwear and lingerie production. Part of that is, of course, compliance with a code of conduct and ethics. Then I started with CSR and sustainability.

The goal for H&M is to be in the forefront of sustainability. That demands quite a lot of work, but that’s a goal and we have peers that we compare ourselves with that are also front-runners, but we also collaborate with them. We have a sustainability strategy for the company; the responsibility for sustainability lies with everyone. It should be completely integrated in the business.

The business concept is fashion and quality at the best price, and sustainability should be completely integrated into that.

Let’s talk about the Conscious Collection, specifically. What makes it an eco-friendly and sustainable line?

Conscious is basically the name of the sustainability program within the company—everything we do in sustainability: the code of conduct, training, supply chains, CO2 emission measurement, energy and water, etc. Everything. And part of that is also the collection. We want a customer who comes into the store to have a general feeling that whatever they choose, it’s produced in good working conditions and taking the environment into account. That’s the overall feeling we want the customers to have. We want them to be secure.

But then we have the Conscious Collection, and that’s a highlight. The qualities that we’re working with are organic cotton—we’re the biggest organic cotton buyer in the world—and recycled cotton, organic linen, recycled polyester, recycled wool, organic hemp, we have Tencel …

How big is Conscious right now? Are there plans to grow it?

We have goals when it comes to sustainable materials. As a group, a goal is that by 2020 all cotton should come from more sustainable sources. That means organic cotton but we also have something called better cotton—it’s an initiative with other brands and manufacturers and authorities and NGOs, together we’re working to convert conventional cotton into a more sustainable cotton by educating farmers. Last year we educated 68,000 farmers in how to produce cotton in a more sustainable way with less water and less chemicals, and we also look at social aspects in the fields. This is a fantastic initiative. To convert from ordinary cotton to organic cotton takes four years for farmers—and right now organic cotton is only one percent of all the cotton in the world. But our goal is 2020.

h and m head of corporate social responsibility on sustainability

Photos courtesy of H&M

Pieces from the Fall 2011 H&M Conscious Collection

And materials are obviously only part of being sustainable. You mentioned you have a background in production—how are you helping to make that more sustainable?

This is the field where we have the most experience. We started in 1997 with a code of conduct, which covers everything from wages to documentation to working hours, child labor, chemical handling, health and safety—it’s very broad. In total, we have 100 people working just on social and environmental issues. Out of these, about 70 are auditors, going to factories to make sure everything is done right. We’re there very often, guiding the suppliers. It used to be only auditing, but now we’re really in dialogue with the suppliers. We want to see improvements over times. And when we find an area where we think things can be done better, we often do exercises and capacity-building activities.

For example, in Bangladesh, the workers are not aware always about their rights. They don’t know what they can ask for. So there we made short films that were shown in the factories on all different topics to teach them about their rights. It was shown to 300,000 workers. Now we’re working on the same thing in India, and it will expand.

Some people think that the concept of fast fashion and sustainability are mutually exclusive—H&M and comparable stores can be so inexpensive that some go so far as to call them disposable. You buy a top to go out one night and you may never wear it again. What would you say to those people?

As I said before, H&M’s business concept is fashion and quality at the best price, and I know how hard we’re working on the quality side, so I would not say that a low price means bad quality. I know how much quality work we put into this. So first of all, I wouldn’t connect these two.

You wouldn’t call it fast fashion?

No. And we have a responsibility in the user phase. How can we teach the customers to handle the garments in a more environmentally friendly way? We can teach them how to wash it, or maybe we design a garment so that it doesn’t have to be ironed. These are things we look into. And also we use more and more recycled material in the garments, which is really really important—and of course we have programs to recycle garments from customers that are returned. We’re trying out a few different things with that.

That’s interesting, what you said about clothes that don’t have to be ironed. What else can consumers do to make their use of clothes more sustainable?

Washing at lower temperatures. Tumble drying takes a lot of energy. We’ve done a lot of life cycle analysis to see from start to finish, what’s the biggest impact. In the production phase with the suppliers, we try to guide them in ways to use less energy, and it goes all the way to the user phase.

What do you think are some of H&M’s biggest weaknesses as far as sustainability, and how are you trying to fix them?

I have a hard time talking about weaknesses. We have challenges! I’m proud that we see the responsibility in all phases, cradle to grave—or even cradle to cradle. From raw materials to producing fabrics to the garments, cut and sewn, to transportation from the distribution center to stores and offices to the user phase. We try to see in each stage what we can improve. It is a big job, and that’s the challenge—the whole chain. It’s very complicated. It’s very different steps, and it’s quite hard to trace. Organic cotton and better cotton we can always trace, but conventional cotton is very hard to know exactly where it’s from. This is something we really look into.

Another challenge is to reach the customer with our sustainability message, to make them feel secure with a brand that offers low prices and high fashion. We have Conscious as one way to do this.

A third challenge is when looking at the supply chain, the challenges that we see in terms of compliances and codes are industry-wide challenges. It’s not an H&M challenge. We know that to be able to manage this, we need to work together with other brands, with governments, NGOs … it’s a lot about collaboration, which we do a lot.

What made you become so passionate about sustainability?

I think this is part of my values, but I think the real interest grew when I was living in Bangladesh. I was extremely proud when I went to factories and saw that we had taught the suppliers about the code of conduct and how to keep documents … it’s a still a challenge, but I’m very proud to see the progress. It gave me the impression that this would be really interesting to work with.

And see which celebrity hit the red carpet in a dress from the H&M Conscious Collection.