When the Covid crisis took hold, many wondered whether the industry’s rallying cries around sustainability would be drowned out by a need to address new issues, like flagging consumer demand and stymied supply chains.
Not so, according to H&M Group’s U.S. sustainability manager, Abigail Kammerzell, who spoke to how environmentally friendly practices are changing the retail landscape at NRF’s virtual Retail Big Show.
The Covid crisis brought “unprecedented changes” to the industry, she said, and forced retail and fashion businesses to contend with the shifting needs of consumers and suppliers. But Kammerzell says a focus on sustainability represents “the key to recovering from the pandemic,” and 2020’s challenges have actually prompted H&M to double down on its goals. “It hasn’t slowed down our sustainability efforts—I think it’s just made us smarter and made us understand that we have to move faster as an industry,” she said.
“Culturally, we were at a tipping point before the pandemic,” she added, as consumers had begun to assess how their values played into their consumption habits. “Protecting people and the planet that they’re living on is a priority, and when they’re thinking about where to spend dollars, they want to know that these businesses are also concerned.”
The rise of digitally savvy Gen Z consumers has paralleled H&M’s efforts to become not only more environmentally friendly, but also more transparent. “This generation grew up digitally native and they understand how to access information,” Kammerzell said. “Gen Z is really demanding an understanding of where clothes are made, and an understanding of the makeup of their clothes.”
There is now a greater understanding of the implications of buying trend-forward clothing, she added, and that has underscored H&M’s responsibility as a producer. “The expectation of Gen Z for what a business is has shifted,” she said. “I think that their belief is that a business is here not just to provide an item, but to improve the society and the community that [it] lives and operates in.”
Shoppers are also eager to get in on the action, she added, and retail closures across the globe have thrown a wrench into those efforts. “One of the biggest touch points we have had with our customers in the past has been our stores,” Kammerzell said, where H&M collects garments in any condition for recycling. “We’re very excited to turn that back on in 2021.” The company has also just launched a circular build strategy for its physical stores. Kammerzell said H&M’s new locations will be built according to “circular guidelines,” using fixtures and building materials made from recycled or recyclable compounds.
“It’s about making sure that all of our stores are as sustainable as possible, since they do have a footprint in the community,” she said, “but then it’s also about assessing the communities that we’re in, and partnering with them and talking to them and seeing what’s needed.”
H&M has teamed up with groups like the Children’s Center in Downtown Detroit—less than 10 minutes away from one of the company’s stores—for funding and volunteering efforts, as well as LGBTQ advocacy group the Trevor Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’re really making sure that we’re understanding the strength of the communities that we operate in we’re in, with over 500 stores in 48 states,” she said.
The company is also wading into the discussion about fair and ethical supply chains with more conviction, she added. “Over the last nine months of the Covid 19 pandemic, we’re understanding I think how interconnected and interdependent all aspects of the business are,” she said. “It is really important that the supply chain is brought along on any recovery efforts.”
H&M has taken a more definitive stance on upskilling its global workforce and democratizing factory operations by encouraging workers to elect representation. “We want to make sure that women are not left out of the economic conversation,” she said, especially since 80 percent of garment workers are female. The company has engaged the International Finance Corporation and the U.N.’s Better Work program to help facilitate training in both material and soft skills like leadership.
“As you’re moving towards circularity, it’s about making sure that these workers are continuing to get the skills that they need to come along on the journey,” she said.