Swedish fashion giant H&M isn’t the first company to seek to reduce the environmental impact of its water usage. But while most corporations restrict their focus to their own factories, H&M has partnered with WWF on a strategy that will transform how the clothing company uses water throughout its supply chain, from river to retail.
In many ways, cotton is at the heart of H&M’s new water stewardship plans. The clothing industry has always been vulnerable to cotton price fluctuations, never more so than in 2010, when rising global demand, combined with flooding in China, produced a global shortage and sent prices skyward.
“All clothing companies have felt the pinch of cotton prices over the last few years”, says Stuart Orr, Freshwater Manager at WWF-UK and one of the architects of the H&M partnership. “And a lot of them have woken up to the vulnerability they face from water issues.”
The partnership is designed to help mitigate these water-related risks, particularly in the Yangtze and Brahmaputra River basins, which together supply the bulk of H&M’s products. Although it’s still early days for the project, Orr says that WWF will focus on improving water quality and efficiency among the local manufacturers that supply H&M, and many other companies, with textiles.
Improved water quality has been the focus of several recent campaigns aimed at corporations. Greenpeace’s 2011 ‘Dirty Laundry’ report, for example, revealed that Chinese textile suppliers for brands including H&M were dumping hazardous chemicals into waterways. In November, Greenpeace launched its Detox movement, through which fashion industry members vowed to collaborate only with brands that adopt transparent water policies.
Coaxing suppliers to clean up their acts, as H&M hopes to do, will inevitably impose costs on these facilities. To help ease the burden, Orr expects that lenders and donors will help manufacturers invest in technology and production techniques that use less water and return it cleanly to the environment. “We’re not going to change the world by ourselves,” Orr says, “but we can show other companies what good water stewardship looks like.”
While these production upgrades are vital, they represent only half the hydrological battle. “Technological solutions are easy”, cautions Tien Shiao, a water specialist at the World Resources Institute. The more fundamental need, he says, is for H&M “to figure out how to sustainably manage water across the watersheds they operate in and depend on”. – Ben Goldfarb
Photo: Flickr J0hncooke