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

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

Tupungato / Shutterstock.com

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."

For H&M, water scarcity in its suppliers' backyards is a problem it can ill-afford to ignore.

"The future of communities, nature and business depends on responsible water management," said Björne.

Björne pointed out that the manufacture of textiles and other materials requires vast quantities of water, which can put a tremendous strain on local water supplies. It also depends heavily on the use of chemicals in the fertilization and dyeing processes that can pollute surface water.

"H&M knows they have to act," said WWF's Orr. "Sitting on this issue will not work, not only because of their own reputational risk, but because of the growing pressure from consumers, investors and NGOs like us."

"More aligned to H&M's business, not addressing this will affect them financially in the long run," he added. "Business value is at risk from water."

Even before its partnership with WWF, H&M was hard at work on water efficiency, especially by helping its denim-producing suppliers upgrade the processes with which they use water. The company's initial trials with its denim suppliers in 2009 proved that optimizing water usage can deliver savings of up to 30 percent.

The following year, H&M rolled out its optimized water process for denim production on a greater scale, achieving water savings of around 50 million liters (13.2 million gallons) relative to previous production methods. In total, the company has reduced water usage across its denim suppliers' operations by 300 million liters (nearly 79.3 gallons).

Still, H&M felt it could do more, and in 2011 the company began working with experts at WWF to formally assess every last water-related aspect of H&M's business, from its work with suppliers to the design of its products to its messaging with consumers.

The review formed the foundation of H&M's new water strategy, which was codified in December 2012 when the company signed a three-year partnership agreement with WWF to implement a wide range of measures to improve H&M's water efficiency.

So what does WWF bring to the table? First, WWF will provide its substantial institutional knowledge to help H&M develop training materials for its design and sourcing teams. Designers and buyers will learn about the water-related impacts of producing various raw materials and fashion styles. The training will build on programs H&M has already developed and implemented at its head office and around the world.

Second, WWF is helping H&M take a look at company-owned facilities. The company is installing special equipment on taps, toilets and dishwashers; harvesting rainwater when possible; and closely monitoring water use across its operations.

Third, WWF and H&M will look beyond suppliers' factory walls to work with local and regional governments, NGOs and other companies to generally improve water management of the Yangtze and Ganges/Brahmaputra river basins in China and Bangladesh, respectively.

Finally, H&M wants to educate its customers about the importance of water management. H&M has already dedicated a section of its website to providing customers with information on saving water when they wash and dry their clothes.

While the current partnership does not include a water-themed marketing campaign, Björne acknowledged that the "marketing campaigns are effective ways of communicating with customers" and both organizations say they are discussing a marketing campaign and will disclose more plans around their communications strategy in June.

The specifics of the partnership should become more fleshed out in the coming months, but H&M says that after all is said and done, it expects to save billions of liters of water.

"Water is a key resource for H&M and we are committed to ensure that water is used responsibly throughout our value chain," Karl-John Persson, H&M's CEO, said in a statement announcing the partnership. "We do this to minimize risks in our operations, to protect the environment and to secure the availability of water. We are proud of the partnership with WWF which we hope will inspire others to follow."

Tupungato / Shutterstock.com