Can Helena Helmersson make H&M sustainable?

Almost a year ago Helena Helmersson was named the CEO of H&M Group, the company that owns eight fashion and home decor brands, including H&M. Her appointment at first glance may not seem newsworthy, but upon a second look, Helena Helmersson's new job could be a sign of H&M's progress on sustainability.

She brings change to the top position.

Helmersson became the first woman to hold the CEO position at H&M Group, also becoming the first woman to run one of the world's four largest fashion groups. Her appointment is historic for women on the business side of the fashion industry. It also signals a change in the culture of fashion businesses. Specifically, at H&M Group, Helmersson's appointment disrupted the family-first mindset previously prevalent in the top jobs. The company that was founded in 1947 by Erling Persson had usually put Persson family members in the top positions, including CEO. That changed when Helmersson became the first CEO not related to the Persson family. She replaced Karl-Johan Persson. Becoming the first woman and first non-member of the Persson family to be appointed CEO is a sign of significant change at H&M Group — starting at the top.

She was previously the head of sustainability.

Helmersson joined H&M in 1997 before being promoted through the company to the top position. During her more than 23 years, she held many positions relating to operations and production. That includes her five-year stint as Chief Sustainability Officer of H&M from 2010 to 2015. After that, she was promoted to Global Director of Production for H&M before moving to H&M Group to be the Director of Operations. Helmersson is not an expert in finance or sales, but rather in sustainability and operations.

She has a unique perspective on the coexistence of the fast fashion model and sustainability.

According to many fast fashion critics, it is impossible to keep selling millions of garments and be sustainable. Helmersson disagrees. She is focused on incorporating circularity to "decouple growth and production of garments from the use of natural resources." Using recycled materials, she believes H&M can continue to sell the same number of clothes while minimizing environmental damage. Helmersson says it is important for people to express themselves through fashion, and she implies that curbing consumption is not the only way to make the fashion industry more sustainable.

Other sustainability plans that she has for H&M include:

  • Using tech and AI to forecast consumer demand and avoid overproduction.

  • Working with policy-makers and stakeholders to rebuild production systems that include vulnerable garment makers. She says, "It's not as easy as a brand stating what a certain level of wage should be. We need to build the systems to make that work locally."

  • Making sustainable fashion affordable. Helmersson wants to keep the price of H&M clothing affordable so more consumers will able to buy new, sustainable clothing.

  • Making H&M climate-positive by 2040. This means the company would take more carbon emissions out of the atmosphere than it releases.

In the end, H&M will continue to embrace sustainability because it can no longer compete with other fast fashion brands.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of H&M's sustainability plans. Just before Helmersson was appointed CEO, the fashion group was accused of misleading claims regarding their Conscious collection. But, now, things are different. In the last couple of years, a new type of fast fashion brand has emerged. These brands are called "ultra-fast fashion" and include Fashion Nova, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, ASOS, and more. They can make clothes faster and cheaper than the likes of H&M and are, therefore, hogging all the profits. H&M now needs to find a new label for itself. Maybe it will be "affordable sustainable fashion"; at least that's what its new CEO wants it to be.

Keep Reading:

BoF 500: Helena Helmersson (Business of Fashion)

H&M’s New CEO Wants To Fix Fast Fashion. Is That Possible? (British Vogue)

A Slew of New Retailers Are Killing the Fast Fashion Status Quo (The Fashion Law)