Interview with H&M Group: Why Collaboration and Knowledge are Key in Driving Sustainable Change

H&M Group is one of those companies which do not require an introduction, but what you may not know about the 75-year-old company that became a worldwide synonym for affordable fashion, is it is also an industry leader when it comes to sustainability and public affairs.

Recently, we interviewed Pernilla Halldin, Head of Public Affairs at H&M Group, to explore important topics like:

  • How public affairs became a pressing subject for the textile industry
  • Why collaboration among industry players is essential in driving change
  • Why businesses shouldn’t be afraid to engage with policymakers

If you enjoy learning more about the EU sustainability landscape in this format, don’t miss out on our complete interview series, which includes conversations with key textile industry players, such as Sympatex, Textile Exchange and the Sustainable Fashion Academy. But it doesn’t stop there. Within the Ohana interview series, you will also find our chat with ChemSec about the latest EU chemical policies, EOG’s and FESI’s views on the urgent subject of microplastics, and valuable insights from the Policy Hub on how to combine education with advocacy.

Want someone with deep experience and connections in the EU to help guide your sustainability strategy? Get in touch!

Public Affairs and the Textile Industry: A New Relationship

While it seems impossible to discuss solutions for sustainability issues without hearing from the textile sector, the industry’s relationship with public affairs is a fairly new one. Unlike other industries, such as ICT, the textile industry has not been regulated on sustainability matters until now.

The EU Commission is certainly doing its share by creating legislation to promote sustainable practices within the sector, as we can gather from the extensive list of initiatives included in the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. However, many textile industry players seem to have only recently realised the importance of having their say and sharing their knowledge in the policy-making process. As Head of Public Affairs for the H&M Group, Pernilla explains:

In general, the fashion industry has not worked with public affairs before. There was no need because we’ve had our suppliers and our customers, and we’ve been working with peers, organisations, academia, and experts to develop the industry. We’re not like telecom companies, who had to establish relations with governments. This is why our industry does not have a lot of experience in public affairs.

With many textile and fashion companies only now taking their first steps towards establishing relationships with public institutions, H&M Group aims to become a natural industry leader on the subject and is welcoming policy makers to reach out to the company for dialogue.

As we see it at Ohana, the delay in joining the conversation might be due to the fact that even organisational leaders often find it difficult to understand how the EU works and how to engage with the European Parliament in a more practical sense. Whatever the reason behind that lack of engagement, EU organisations should certainly prioritise the topic of public affairs, as there is no denying that strong stakeholder involvement has become instrumental for the sustainable growth of any sector.

H&M Group’s Industry-leading Approach to Public Affairs

With 4,664 stores spread across 77 different markets (figures from Q3, 2022), the sheer size of H&M Group’s operations created the need for a public affairs department within the company. As one of Ohana’s most long-term clients, the group has always clearly stated its intention of leading the sustainability conversation in the EU for both the fashion and textile sectors.
We came to a point where we were too big to not engage with policy makers.” Pernilla comments, further adding that “While they are not the only topics we address through public affairs, the environmental and social questions – which are very close to our heart – were the ones that kick-started the public affairs movement for us.

In recent years, as sustainability has become an urgent matter for society as a whole, EU legislators have placed a strong focus on the textile industry, a movement considered beneficial by the fashion giant, as it could strengthen influence.

The industry has been put under the spotlight by many policymakers, and that is good. This is how we together can create the change we want.” says Halldin.

Now, as an established industry leader in the subject, engagement with policymakers has become an essential part of H&M Group’s sustainability strategy, which Pernilla believes should also be the case for everyone in the textile sector:

Being a company with strong goals on sustainability and many years of experience of sustainability, we need to share all our and the industry’s knowledge and experience with policymakers. Many of our challenges need to be addressed collectively. We can’t change the industry only by engaging with suppliers and customers.

Driving Positive Change: Why Collaboration Matters

At Ohana, we often reinforce the importance of getting everyone involved in the policymaking process for the creation of lasting solutions to the EU’s sustainability concerns, which is a vision shared by H&M Group. During our interview, Pernilla explained that collaboration is such a vital part of the organisation’s strategy because, in their perspective, gathering inputs from different stakeholders is indeed the only way to get the full picture on a subject.

Collaboration With Policymakers

When asked about what she believes to be the role of such a big company in Brussels, considering how some tend to cast a negative light over this kind of interaction, the company head did not hesitate: “Be it through public affairs or another route, we have a great vision of leading the change within our industry. Public affairs is one way to lead the change, and to do that, we need to be present. We need to educate policymakers on how the industry works, what has already been done and what we believe to create the change we see necessary.

As Halldin sees it, businesses shouldn’t be afraid to engage with policymakers, regardless of speculations. Instead, textile companies should seek to proactively fulfil their role in Brussels, participating in the debate as subject matter experts, since public institutions have no way of understanding the inner workings of the textile industry if not through their input. She sees it as important that policy makers maintain a close dialogue with companies and recognise their long experience of what is needed to drive systemic change.

Collaboration Between Industry Peers

The same rationale applies when it comes to the relationship between industry peers.

If it’s true that H&M Group has been heading the movement towards a more sustainable textile ecosystem, the company believes in making it happen only through collaboration. “The big brands are just a percentage of the full industry. Yes, we might be symbols of the industry, but if we create the change only within our companies, the impact will not be systematic“, comments the executive.

In addition to collaboration with civil society and third-sector organisations, such as WWF, which the company has engaged in for over a decade, H&M Group sees cooperation between the businesses that make up the textile industry as central to accelerating change, especially through innovation.

It’s pretty clear that we alone don’t have all the answers. Organisations, NGOs, international institutes, and our peers have expertise in areas we don’t, and it is important that we listen to them. We need to understand different perspectives to create the best way of working for us as an industry.“, says Pernilla, stressing that peer collaboration increases the chances of success and that the only way to influence an outcome is to get involved.

Although some may be unsure of how to collaborate with stakeholders in the policymaking process due to the competitive nature of business, it’s clear that these collective efforts create a better-levelled playing field for everyone in the long run. Commenting on how H&M Group perceives the growing interest from its industry peers in public affairs, Halldin concludes, “It’s excellent to havepeers engaging with policy makers as well. It is only together we can accelerate the well needed transformation of our industry.

As we have often stated, there is no achieving the sustainability goals that the EU has set for itself without thorough engagement from the textile industry itself. From the type of labour involved in farming natural fibres to the choice of chemicals applied in dying the fabrics, the decisions made on every level of a textile business have the potential to be a positive game-changer for society and the ecosystem. And while there are many variables involved in fulfilling that potential, one thing remains certain: when industry players decide not to join the conversation, we miss out on precious opportunities to drive the change we all want to see in the world.



Want someone with deep experience and connections in the EU to help guide your sustainability strategy? Get in touch!

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