What can brands learn from H&M’s eco-fashion fallout?

This week H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson drew widespread reaction and criticism when he spoke with Bloomberg warning of the rise of “consumer shaming” to thwart climate change and said these ‘stop consuming, stop buying movements are a threat to the fashion industry and will have “terrible social consequences” – in reference to the widespread global protest action and socio commentary from the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg.

The thought behind Mr Persson’s comments may well be coming from a pragmatic perspective that there needs to be a more nuanced discourse on environmental action which goes beyond activist scaremongering or shaming consumers on their lifestyle or spending choices.   After all, irrespective of what immediate or urgent steps we take now, climate experts acknowledge short-term temperature change is ‘baked-in’ until at least 2030 and we won’t see noticeable impact until the second half of this century.

Therefore, the points Mr Persson raises around the need to focus on viable long-term sustainable solutions and develop new innovations which are compatible with, and help foster, economic and social prosperity are indeed valid and critical discussions to be had – especially when it comes to alleviating poverty. And for those with a Keynesian leaning, consumer spending is often considered one of the most important sanity checks and short-run determinants of economic performance, given its role in driving prosperity through job creation and investment. The argument about whether ‘growth’ is the best metric for the health of a country, or the planet is of course another one altogether.

But unfortunately, the way in which Mr Persson’s comments were phrased and delivered, invited a media scrum and has drawn him into a completely un-winnable debate on mass consumerism – which, coming from a business leader in a sector that is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping industries combined, makes him something of a sitting duck.

In an era of clickbait headlines and a cultural zeitgeist focused around climate action, the son of a billionaire – and third generation CEO – waxing lyrical about the threat of climate activists on the fast fashion industry is akin to striking gold.

As a result, many people won’t necessarily spend the time to understand the context behind his comments or read the original article where Mr Persson goes on to talk about H&M’s initiatives to reduce its own footprint through textile innovation, recycling programmes, rolling out solar panels for factories and its foray into unconventional but sustainable fabrics like citrus peel – as well as his own personal concerns around issues such as access to healthcare and alleviating poverty.

Instead, all they may see is an elite businessman reacting to his profitable business model coming under threat from a socially conscious movement.  Not really the best optics. And moreover, this will do little to endear the brand to its target demographic – young millennials with disposable income and emerging Gen Z’s.

How then can fashion brands resonate with socially conscious consumers?

Clearly, the activist message of less consumerism is at odds with a business that not only needs people to keep spending but is also geared around them buying more items at lower price points. How then can brands like H&M continue to keep consumers on side, without affecting its bottom line or fundamentally changing its business model?

Rather than launch a verbal grenade or venturing into unwinnable debates on the merits of mass consumerism, fashion brands such as H&M instead need to find ways to focus attention on the pertinent issues within their own organisation and deliver engaging storytelling to extol the merits on what they have been doing to address them – whether it’s on modern slavery, recycling or cutting greenhouse energy emissions.

Indeed, FleishmanHillard’s latest Authenticity Gap data, which studied 20 industries, 160 companies and 1,140 engaged UK consumers, shows consumers increasingly care about how their clothes are made and have mounting expectations for how companies in the fashion industry to care for the environment – up 24 per cent, and is now the top expectation for the sector. And perhaps unsurprisingly, every clothing company studied fell short of these expectations.

Interestingly, the same consumers also still expect better value from the brands they purchase from. Cynics would argue this presents a clear contradiction as the reason fast fashion brands have been able to keep retail price points low is by being able to use cheap materials and labour. And arguing this point with consumers becomes moot, they will simply expect companies to find new ways to deliver the same goods, at the same price but in a sustainable, socially conscious and environmentally friendly way.

Brands such as Patagonia have been very public about engraining sustainability into its mission and vision and taking demonstrable action all along its supply chain – and this itself has become a brand selling point.  But not every brand can, or should, claim it has the capacity to do the same. However, being seen to be taking a stand, making a commitment and being able to back it up will go some way to separating a brand from its pack.

Therefore, fashion leaders should first and foremost think about how they can talk honestly and authentically about challenges faced both as an organisation – and collectively as an industry – and show evidence of the meaningful steps being taken to address them.

For communications and marketing chiefs, this will require careful consideration of the appropriate channel, timing and spokesperson to deliver this important message.  Putting the CEO in front a cynical media in search of a headline may – as H&M have found – prove counterproductive, especially at a time when it wanted to focus attention on its encouraging earnings and financial turnaround.  Whereas deploying engaging and emotive multichannel content using relevant social platforms, may yield better results and gain better traction with audiences.

Consumers may no longer be willing to turn a blind eye, but they may be lenient or forgiving of brands that acknowledge their shortcomings and demonstrate progress. And perhaps then, they will start to feel good about fashion again.

Ludo Baynham-Herd, Corporate & Financial Communications