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Published: 2020-01-30

"Sustainability requires systems thinking"

PROFILE For many years, Umeå University alumna Helena Helmersson has been working to put sustainability at the centre of clothing retail company H&M. From 30 January 2020 she is the new CEO of H&M Group.

Text: Jonas Lidström
Image: Mattias Pettersson

Helena Helmersson has graduated from Umeå University with a degree in economics. She’s been working for the H&M Group for 22 years now, and for a long time she’s been a driving force in turning sustainability into a core issue.

You’re here at Umeå University to receive an award presented to influential leaders. In what ways have you been influential?

“I and many others have helped to integrate sustainability in the H&M Group’s business. When I took over as head of sustainability, this field still wasn’t entirely mainstream. They had a talented sustainability team, but not all countries and divisions had sustainability targets that they themselves pursued. But now this is certainly the case.”

How far do you think the H&M Group has come on its journey towards becoming a sustainable company?

“I don’t think sustainability is something you can ever stop working with. But let’s look at the fair pay issue, for example. We used to go over to countries where we produce a lot of our goods, meet their prime ministers and try to persuade them to increase their minimum wage. But nowadays, we have an entire system in place where we actually get workers on the factory floor to negotiate their own pay; and at the same time, as a company we’ve changed our approach to negotiating prices with subcontractors. There’s still a lot left to do before we’ve achieved our objective of making sure all workers receive a living wage, but it’s clear that things are moving in the right direction.”

Implementing activities in an isolated part of your business isn’t enough. You have to change the entire agenda at the same time

What other fields are there in which you still need to see improvement?

“A lot of effort is currently being invested in moving towards a circular business model. This means that all the fibres we use have to be recycled. Nowadays, some of our collections are based on recycled fibres. But new innovations are needed if we are to go all the way. We also need to come up with scalable techniques to extract dyes out of textile fibres and separate fibres in material blends. We share these needs with the industry as a whole.”

During your visit to Umeå University, you also gave a guest lecture to students and alumni entitled Leadership in a changing world. How are sustainability issues placing new demands on leadership?

“As a business leader, you need to have an ability for systems thinking. Implementing an activity in an isolated part of your business isn’t enough. You have to change the entire agenda at the same time: consider conduct within the organisation, define other types of targets, choose the right partners. And you have to think about all the dependencies.”

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2020.