Helena Helmersson arrives at the H&M store on Passeig de Gràcia dressed in black jeans, military boots and a jacket. Being the CEO of a fashion company and not an electric company has its advantages. In 2020 the Swedish executive was appointed CEO of the H&M group, which with annual revenues of 18,396 million euros and a portfolio of seven brands – H & M, COS, Monki, Weekday, & Other Stories, Arket and Afound – is one of the four largest textile companies in the world. Helmersson thus became the first woman to direct one of them. The next would be Sonia Syngal, currently at the head of GAP, and since last November 30, Marta Ortega, brand new president of Inditex. Completing the podium is Tadashi Yanai, founder of Uniqlo and head of Fast Retailing, who has already expressed on CNN his desire to be relieved by a woman.
The election of Helmersson (Stockholm, 48 years old) as successor to Karl-Johan Persson, grandson of the creator of H&M, was a declaration of principles and intentions. The company founded in 1947 put its future in the hands of a woman who had developed her entire career in the house and who for eight years had been responsible for sustainability. It is not very difficult to read between the lines. The goal of one of the largest producers within one of the world’s most polluting industries seems clear. Helmersson’s speech also: “We must change the system behind fashion. It is complicated, but it is not quantum physics. Ultimately, it is about ensuring our growth in the medium and long term. We have to make our business model evolve because, if not, it will cease to be sustainable “.
The path to transformation comprises, in the opinion of the CEO, three steps. “The first is to produce what we sell, not more. It seems simple, but it constitutes one of the great problems of fashion. Fortunately, today, thanks to big data and artificial intelligence programs, it is easier to calculate the real demand for each product ”. The one to reduce stocks It is a strategy with great environmental benefits, but also economic, since it means less spending on storage and more limited sales that do not compete with current collections. In addition, laws such as the one that will come into force in 2023 in France, which prohibit the destruction of unsold goods at the end of each season – usually by incineration – are becoming increasingly common.
The second step is to produce in a more sustainable and circular way. H&M aims for 30% of its fabrics to be recycled or more sustainable by 2025 and to raise that percentage to 100% by 2030. Inditex announced last July that it expects to achieve zero net emissions in 2040, that in 2023 all its cotton will be recycled or organic (at H&M it has been since 2020) and use only renewable energy from next year. Easier on paper than on the ground.
—Recovering used clothes, separating the fabrics into fibers to make new fabrics and, with them, other garments are still much more expensive than making new clothes, which ends up raising the final price of the product. Can only people with good salaries afford to be sustainable?
– Indeed, recycled fabrics are more expensive. But the same thing happened with organic cotton: traditional cotton was cheaper, so we decided to be an active part in increasing demand. As more were made, prices fell. Being big comes with a lot of responsibility, but I think we can influence a change in the way we manufacture.
The decisions made by a giant like the H&M group – which counts more than 5,000 stores – influence the global production chain. If Helmersson wants recycled fabrics, the hundreds of suppliers and manufacturers with which they collaborate in Asia will have to adapt their processes and technologies to achieve this, advances that other brands that also work with these companies can benefit from: from luxury brands to more accessible projects. “From 2022 we will not establish any new commercial relationship with factories that use coal as energy. Our goal is to veer towards greener sources. But after many years together it is easier to make our partners understand that this helps them develop a more resilient model and ensure that they can continue to grow with us in the long term. “
It is ironic, or at least unexpected, that one of the most efficient forces – even if only for a matter of volume – in improving the environmental impact of the textile industry is precisely fast fashion, a concept with which Helmersson does not feel very connected: “If we are talking about a model that gives an agile and rapid response to consumer demands, and that allows access to a more sustainable lifestyle to a greater number of people, then I do identify with the finished. But if we understand it as a way of offering the buyer garments that favor a disposable attitude, then no ”. Every year 92 million tons of textile waste are generated in the world, at a rate of 11 kilos per person. Does a 5 euro T-shirt encourage that clothing is treated as a disposable product? Is it the price, the quality or the mindset?
—The third step of our project consists of avoiding that our clothes end up in the trash. It is about ensuring that they have a longer life, either by facilitating their repair or, if the owner wishes, sold or rented.
At the moment, H&M does not have a repair service, but it has invested in a used clothing sales platform, Sellpy. Again, sustainability and profitability go hand in hand. According to a report by the ThredUP consultancy, it is expected that in 2028 the second-hand market will reach a value of 56.8 billion euros; that is to say, that it grows 1.5 times more than the fast fashion segment. A cake too big for any large company to give up its piece, starting with the luxury giant Kering, which last April became a shareholder of the vintage articles portal Vestiaire Collective. Furthermore, as reflected in a recent Deloitte study, one in four people who bought used clothing in 2020 did so for environmental reasons, and 35% of these conscientious consumers were Millennials and Zetas. The future, then, seems to go through resale.
The concern for sustainability is precisely, as Helmersson confirms, one of the three “macro trends” that define the desires and purchasing habits of contemporary consumers and that the pandemic has accelerated exponentially. Another is digitization. “With the confinement, many people who had never bought online started to do so. But people keep going to stores to play and taste. They work on both channels and our challenge is to integrate them ”. The third is personalization. “We are in the era of individual style.” And again, although this concept seems to be the opposite of a brand that makes tens of thousands of units of the same dress, Helmersson is ready to square the equation. This time through jeans. Theirs. “They are tailor-made for me thanks to a body scanner project. The issue of sizing is fundamental from the point of view of personalization, but also so that a brand can be called inclusive ”, he argues.
—In Spain, the H&M Plus line, which goes from L to 4XL, cannot be found in physical stores.
—We were guided by the demand and detected that here it was small in stores, but that it worked very well online. It is a determining division.
During his whirlwind visit to Barcelona, Helmersson asks to spend the morning with the teams that work in the stores, to talk to them, to tour the premises. He says that we have gone from the era of globalization to that of local relevance and he does not rule out expanding his roster of collaborations with creators who stand out in specific markets, but not necessarily internationally. In these joint ventures with designers – which launched in 2004 with Karl Lagerfeld – H&M has found a useful tool for generating headlines, sales and excitement. Now his big bet is the Innovation Stories collections, which claim sustainable materials and technologies. This month the fourth installment, Circular Design, arrives in stores, which seeks to demonstrate that fun is not the antonym of environmental awareness. “We have a great responsibility to combine price and sustainability,” he sums up.
“What is the prejudice about H&M that bothers you the most?”
—I have worked for many years in Bangladesh and I have never been more proud than seeing the impact of creating jobs for women; women who have a monthly salary and can take their children to school and help their whole family. So for me it is very frustrating when people think that the price of a garment is related to the working conditions and the wages of the workers who make it. If you go to our factories, you will see that we share them with many brands, some with prices 10 times higher than ours, and the operator’s salary is the same. We have external and internal control mechanisms to guarantee decent conditions. If we have these prices it is because we want to give access to fashion to everyone regardless of the size of their pocket.