Inside H&M's design for a new water management strategy

H&M will design a new strategy that will fundamentally alter and improve the Swedish fashion company's management of water. The effects of the plan will impact water not only in its own operations, but will ripple through its supply chain as well.

The World Wildlife Fund will help H&M develop the strategy as part of a three-year partnership. H&M and WWF have collaborated in the past on other programs, including the Better Cotton Initiative, but the two organizations have found that their most potent synergy arose from their mutual concern for water scarcity.

"We are not picking this issue out of a hat," WWF's freshwater manager, Stuart Orr, told GreenBiz in an email. "Water is posing significant risk to H&M's business and we would suggest it is similar for almost all companies and investors."

Indeed, among the myriad sustainability challenges companies face as resources steadily deplete, water management ranks particularly high.

In a world where water tables are shrinking while cities and populations rapidly expand, water is an increasingly precious resource. Water scarcity forces one out of three people worldwide to rely on unsafe sources of drinking water, exposing them to increased risk of cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery and other water-borne infections, according to the World Health Organization.

In countries like Bangladesh, China and India, where many of H&M's suppliers are located, water scarcity poses a terrible threat to billions of people.

"About a third of the factories that make clothes for H&M using wet processes are already located in extreme water-scarce areas, or will be by 2025," Malin Björne, an H&M spokesperson who works on sustainability, told GreenBiz in an email. "Our suppliers' operations depend directly on the availability of water."

The Upper Ganges, which sustains farm irrigation in both India and Pakistan, provides a compelling example. The Upper Ganges is depleting at an alarming rate, requiring more than 50 times the rainfall it currently receives to meet the massive demand from the region's agriculture and population, The Washington Post reported.

And how about the North China Plain, the densely populated region that supplies China with half of its wheat and one-third of its corn? China's skyrocketing demand for food has begun to deplete water tables and dry up wells across the region, according to Lester R. Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

"The overpumping of aquifers for irrigation temporarily inflates food production, creating a food production bubble that eventually bursts when the aquifer is depleted," Brown wrote. "Earth Policy Institute estimates that some 130 million Chinese are being fed with grain produced by overpumping — by definition, a short term phenomenon."

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