Byline: Michelle Russell
With clothing brands and retailers facing more public pressure than ever to take responsibility for their supply chains, apparel giant H&M Hennes & Mauritz is keen to ensure it is in pole position when it comes to sourcing transparency. Helena Helmersson, the company's head of sustainability, talks to just-style about the group's role in creating a sustainable fashion future, and the challenges it is facing.
H&M published its 2013 sustainability report earlier this month, covering a number of achievements for the fashion group across the entire product lifecycle, ranging from design to how customers take care of their garments.
For Helmersson, however, one of the biggest achievements for H&M in the last year was the launch of its Fair Living Wage Roadmap in November - which she says will ultimately enable suppliers to pay higher wages to their workers.
This will be achieved through H&M's own purchasing practices, and is based on a skilled workforce that has its salary reviewed and negotiated annually on a factory level and involves trade unions or worker representatives.
"This is something I'm very proud of," Helmersson tells just-style. "We've worked very hard to get an advisory board focused on how to drive the process on wages. We have a board with wage experts from the International Labour Organization (ILO), and human rights experts. Together with them we've worked really hard on setting out a holistic strategy on wages. That is something I'm very very proud of and we take a big leadership in that."
The retailer says it is focusing on its strategic suppliers to start with, and the goal is for all of them to have improved pay structures for fair living wages in place by 2018, at the latest.
Government roleH&M has been very clear about the fact it did not source garments from Rana Plaza, the factory that collapsed in April last year killing 1,129 Bangladeshi garment workers. It has, however, found itself a focus of human rights campaigners who have criticised the company for not yet committing to any clear living-wage benchmark.
Helmersson, however, says it is not the responsibility of H&M to make that decision, but that of the country's Government, who she says they are engaging with to support higher wages for garment workers, as well as freedom of association.
The was, however, one of the first to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
"When listening to all the experts on the advisory board about what our role is, we definitely think that a big company like H&M has a role to play and that we can push the process.
"We can make sure we have good purchasing practices, we can help suppliers to build wage structures so that wages are negotiated. We can also run projects like we do in Cambodia, for example, together with Swedish unions and the ILO, to strengthen workers in negotiations."
But pushing the Governments, Helmersson says, is key: "That is the role we can play to really try our utmost to push that process. For us, we are so far away to decide a certain level of wage. That is not our role."
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of labour unions and NGOs, has welcomed H&M's statement that in order to achieve a fair living wage it is willing to pay more to its suppliers. However, it says a commitment must come from H&M to raise the wage "significantly" via a benchmark.
Helmersson says: "There is one voice saying brands should do this, which is the campaign organisations, but we and other stakeholders really think we have another role, which is very very important in order to push the process.
"When I get questions about the living wage we always ask the workers: 'what does your wage cover?' Then we can see from the workers' demands whether it covers their basic needs. They are the ones who should set that benchmark. It's not our role to do that but it's our role to push the process on the factory floors, strengthening workers and influencing governments, which is a crucial role."
Bangladesh AccordMore than 150 brands have so far signed the Accord, one of two separate agreements - the other being the North American Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety - put in place to improve worker and building safety.
The Accord covers 1,600 factories in Bangladesh and more than 2m workers - over half of the Bangladeshi garment workforce.
However, while the collective work by brands and suppliers has started to gain some traction, there has been criticism over the slow progress being made in carrying out inspections on garment factories. It also begs the question: Have retailers done enough?
"You can always talk about speed but I truly believe in the collaboration of the Accord, but also the national action plan the Government and the ILO are running and the Alliance.
"Together we have decided on the same standard and the Accord is running a lot of inspections right now. By the end of the year, all H&M factories should have been inspected.
"What happened one year ago really was a terrible tragedy that has created this force of joining together. We really need to collaborate and I truly believe through this we can make a change."
This article was originally published on just-style.com on 28 April 2014. For authoritative and timely style business information visit http://www.just-style.com.