How She Leads: H&M's Helena Helmersson

The role of Chief Sustainability Officer is not usually seen as a power position within corporate hierarchies. That’s why I nearly fell off my chair when I read that Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability for Swedish global clothing & retail giant H&M, was named the most powerful person in business in Sweden for 2014 by that nation’s leading business magazine.

Helena "is in charge of the most important question for the future, in the [Swedish] stock market's largest company," the article noted.

That citation was good news for sustainability generally. But the editors were not simply recognizing Helena for her organizational role, or for the size of the company where she exercises it. They noted that Helena "also sits on power that reaches far outside the limited boundaries of business." In other words, she is perceived as a leadership force within society at large.

I wanted to understand how a person who began working in sustainability just a few years ago — Helena worked on the production side at H&M before being named global head of sustainability in 2010 — so quickly could turn into one of the field’s most celebrated stars. The answer proved to be quite simple, and also quite visible in H&M’s newly released sustainability report, "Conscious Actions 2013": she sets goals, and gets things done.

Alan AtKisson: Congratulations on being named the most powerful businessperson in Sweden by the business magazine Veckans Affärer. Were you surprised?

Helena Helmersson: Yes, very much so. I was pretty shocked when they called. But, of course, I’m super proud and very happy. There is a gigantic amount of teamwork behind everything we do, and I take this as proof that it’s been visible.  

AtKisson: Why do you think they noticed you?

Helmersson: I think because H&M has been launching a lot of initiatives: Garment Collecting, the Water Stewardship collaboration with WWF, the Fair Living Wage Roadmap. We have also been phasing out difficult chemicals, like PVC. We have done a lot, and also started to communicate more about our achievements.

AtKisson: You came into this position as head of sustainability from a somewhat non-traditional direction. Was it a difficult transition?

Helmersson: Not internally, because I had the internal network, and we were in a stage where we needed to push integration. I felt that I could contribute by inspiring others to set their own sustainability agendas.

The external part was more difficult, because I didn’t have as much knowledge as others in my position. That made me feel a bit awkward in some situations.

AtKisson: But you got things done.

Helmersson: I think I’m a doer.

Model/philanthropist Amber Valletta models for H&M's Conscious Collection, touted as more sustainable clothing. Image courtesy of H&M.AtKisson: In the opening of the new H&M sustainability report, your CEO, Karl-Johan Persson, is quoted saying, “we need to consider our planet’s boundaries. I believe that the way fashion is made and consumed will change.” How do you think fashion is going to change? Will growth still be possible?

Helmersson: In those parts of the world that are developing really fast, and that should be developing fast, I think big companies like H&M can grow more. But we’re also trying to change behavior — “Come to our stores and give your unwanted garments back.” I think that will lead to people maybe not buying as many things as they used to.

But right now we’re going into countries like Chile and the Philippines, and we’re so proud of the prices we can offer. We can make sustainable fashion available for so many more people, partly due to the price.

AtKisson: That sounds a bit like the Unilever approach.

Helmersson: Yes. With the planetary boundaries, there’s so much evidence. So when it comes to closing the loop on our use of natural resources, I feel we need to rush.

AtKisson: The new report also talks about providing sustainability as an important added value. Are customers recognizing that?

Helmersson: When it comes to our Conscious Collection, it is there in the hangtag. We have done a lot of surveys about how customers learn about sustainability. We know that if you bring something home — like a shopping bag or a hangtag — you tend to read it. We have also done surveys about what creates awareness of sustainability, and the No. 1 source of that awareness is through fashion. So I think that customers do see this as an added value.

But we want to move away from just having a Conscious Collection, to having customers feel that sustainability is built into our whole brand.

AtKisson: H&M’s new sustainability report is very comprehensive. What highlights do you identify with personally?

Helmersson: I would say the Fair Living Wage Roadmap, Garment Collecting, and — if I can take a third — the Water Stewardship collaboration with WWF.

Image by Dan4th Nicholas via Flickr.AtKisson: Why wages?

Helmersson: That is one of the most complex issues we deal with in the supply chain. We have been engaged on that issue for so many years, trying different things, and feeling frustrated that it’s not progressing as fast as we would like.

So we put an advisory board in place, specifically on wages. We developed a very holistic new approach based on four cornerstones [engagement with governments, factory employees, factory owners and H&M’s own practices]. This helps us feel secure that we’re doing as much as we can. I think we’re quite courageous to set measurable targets on such a difficult issue, where the result is dependent on the actions of many different stakeholders.

AtKisson: Which aspect of H&M’s sustainability work causes you the most worry, or keeps you awake at night?

Helmersson: I’m not the kind of person who wakes up feeling worried. I feel that I’m responsible for something very important, but I see that as a challenge. I truly do. And I have wonderful and talented colleagues. We have a plan, we feel we can make change, and we’re doing the very best we can. We can always improve, but I like that feeling that we have a focus, and that we really try to bring results.

AtKisson: You have a very ambitious training program at H&M. What are you training people on?

Helmersson: In the e-learning program that we’ve done for all 116,000 employees, the content is about the value chain. It tells the story about what we do at each stage. It’s done in a very inspirational way, since sustainability can sometimes be seen as a heavy topic. But there are certain issues we place more emphasis on, such as wages and prices, water, and the materials we use.

AtKisson: How about yourself? What do you find yourself focusing on for your own learning?

Helmersson: When I started, I could more easily relate to social questions, because I worked in production. So now, I am eager to learn even more about the environmental side. When we talk about closing the loop on textile fibers, for example, how can we do that? How can we push even faster to become less dependent on natural resources?

H&M storefront image courtesy of H&M.AtKisson: This year, for the first time, H&M began selling clothes that have recycled fibers in them. How is that working?

Helmersson: We started with a small denim collection. We managed to take old garments that we collected in our stores and return the cotton to our supply chain. These denims contain 20 percent recycled cotton fibers, which is good.

In the future, of course, we want that number to be higher and still be able to maintain the quality. That’s the challenge now. We can’t do it yet, because the fabric wouldn’t pass our quality tests.

AtKisson: You have a partnership with WWF on water, and among the goals you published was this one: “Develop a dedicated water engagement plan for the Yangtze and Brahmaputra river basins.” How did you come up with such an ambitious goal?

Helmersson: This is an example of what WWF can help us with. We know exactly where we have wet processes with our suppliers; they know exactly the critical locations and geographies where there is either water scarcity or big problems with water quality. Before, we were just trying to be a clean fish in a dirty pond, you know? Now we’re working with WWF to try to clean the pond.

Partly it’s for the communities around these areas, and the people living there, to ensure that they have a safe environment. But it’s also for us, to secure our growth, because two-thirds of our suppliers working with wet processes are in water-scarce areas.

AtKisson: You’ve been head of sustainability for several years now. Are you still enjoying it?

Helmersson: Yes, I am! It’s an amazing job. We’re driving so many improvements, and since we are such a big player, it is really making a difference. The whole team works very, very hard, but we are having fun, I must say.

AtKisson: What question did I not ask you that I should have asked you?

Helmersson: Maybe how we integrate sustainability into the customer offer. There are so many initiatives out there. We’re just one among a bunch of companies who are thinking about how to make customers part of the solution. We have to focus on what we each can do, because if we all try to do everything, we’ll fail. I wish we would collaborate more on changing customers’ perceptions, and raising their awareness more quickly.

AtKisson: What’s your vision for your own career?

Helmersson: I am really not a career person. This might sound strange, but I have never had climbing the ladder as a goal. I love working with goals as part of my job, but for me personally, I have never made career plans. I’ve been working for H&M my whole career. I like the company and the values very much. So I want to do even better in this position, right now.

Helena Helmersson image courtesy of H&M.