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Water Stewardship - H&M uses the  collaboration to manage water risks

The fashion industry has a unique opportunity for leadership in water stewardship, according to WWF and H&M. But it will need to think – and act – in an entirely new way.


© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon


The “fashion industry” is not a monolith. It’s haute couture and off-the-rack. It’s flagship shops and noisy factories. It’s a cotton farmer in Pakistan, a designer in Sweden, a seamstress in China and a shopper in Brazil. Across all these different aspects, there’s a constant: water. From how fibres are grown to how garments are cared for, water touches fashion. That’s why the industry is talking about water more than ever before.

Water risk matters to the fashion industry. Supply chains and raw material production are heavily dependent on water availability and quality, and the industry is subject to strong consumer scrutiny and NGO campaigning – notably the recent push by Greenpeace to reduce toxic pollutants in garment production.

Fashion brands have historically focused on reducing operational and supply chain water impacts. Whether driven by corporate values or bad press, these actions aim to reduce the threat posed by the company to the environment. While vitally important, such actions miss the real driver of water risk for their businesses – the cumulative impact of all actors within river basins. Reducing site-level water pollution and increasing operational water efficiency won’t reduce the threat posed by the environment to the company. But engaging beyond the factory fence with other users and with water regulators just might.

“It is not enough to be a clean fish in a dirty pond,” says Stuart Orr, Head of WWF International’s Water Stewardship programme. “Companies need to work collectively and engage with basin governance to really address water issues long term.”

For the fashion industry, the actions of a few leaders may open up opportunities for many. H&M is one company taking a strong position on water stewardship. In 2011, H&M worked with WWF to assess all water-related risks in its value chain. The result was a new water strategy for H&M with a stated goal of inspiring other fashion brands to get involved in water stewardship.

Of course, part of the strategy also focuses on internal water practices. All 116,000 H&M employees have now been trained on water issues. H&M has improved routines to enforce appropriate wastewater treatment in supply chains, and is supporting suppliers to implement improved water and chemical management when dyeing, printing and finishing textiles. But a key objective of the partnership with WWF is to initiate collective action in priority river basins.

Felix Ockborn, H&M’s Environmental Sustainability Coordinator on water says, “When the entire catchment benefits from our early steps and others are inspired to take action, then we know we are successful. In the marketplace, we compete, but in a river basin, it’s all about cooperation.”

Water stewardship in China

The Taihu Basin near Shanghai is one of the three priority wetland conservation areas for biodiversity listed by the China Academy of Science. It is also highly industrialized and heavily polluted, leaving the fabric and processing factories there facing significant water risk. The aim of the WWF/H&M initiative is to improve industrial park water performance and sub-basin water governance.

WWF and H&M will engage with an industrial park in Taihu, as this is an important leverage point for collective action and can create a cascade effect across the region. A water stewardship methodology is being introduced to facilitate better water management within the park and participation in shared risk mitigation activities.

Outside the industrial park, H&M and WWF will convene collective action among diverse stakeholders – farmers, policymakers, factory managers and others – in the sub-basin to address water issues and support improved water planning and management for both development and conservation. This type of initiative is challenging to create, but represents the best opportunity for fashion companies to manage their water risks comprehensively in the future.

Time to act

“The fashion industry has a huge advantage over other industries, due to the concentration of their shared supply chains in a few geographical areas,” says Laila Petrie, who is leading the WWF water stewardship programme for textiles. “This means that pioneers like H&M can begin the process of establishing collective efforts, then other fashion companies can join the initiatives and strengthen them. This only needs to happen in a few places, and the fashion industry can radically reduce its water risk and impact.”

WWF is establishing water stewardship initiatives in all of its priority river basins across the globe, many of which are also hubs of garment production. It is also leveraging experiences with companies like H&M to create sophisticated guidance for strategy on water stewardship, among other textile-driven initiatives such as SAC, PaCT and Madeby.

“The sector is demonstrating the practical utility of some great technical tools and strategic approaches to water stewardship,” says Petrie. “This is a unique moment for fashion companies to act – there is a real opportunity to be recognised as a leader and a clear business imperative for addressing water risk.”




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