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How I got here: Catarina Midby, sustainability manager, H&M UK and Ireland

H&M prides itself on being a leader in sustainability within the fashion industry. Here is the woman in charge of keeping it up. 

I’ve been practising yoga since the 1980s. Every morning, I start my day with sun salutations, which puts me in a calm state of mind before going into a busy morning of meetings with my colleagues at head office. This relaxed mood gives me clarity of mind and allows me to make better decisions.

Educating staff about global environmental issues and energy saving practices, like turning lights off, is one of my main responsibilities. There is mandatory introductory training for all staff that focuses on recycling – packaging, hangers and their food waste – and saving energy. Aside from the compulsory training, there is also a continuous Conscious programme, which provides updates on energy saving practices and new initiatives. So far, around 90% of staff have completed the training. In addition to the business, the Garment Collection scheme, which was rolled out in 2013 in H&M stores across the world, gets customers involved. We’re able to recycle 97% of what we collect, so returning any type of clothing to the store – regardless of condition or brand – really makes a difference.

I work closely with our UK sustainability managers to ensure H&M’s practice is just as sustainable behind the scenes as its public. The managers coordinate activities like Recycling Week, a global push to collect 1,000 tonnes of unwanted garments in H&M stores during April. They also handle the technical side of things, analysing how we can use more alternative energy in our operations, for example with solar panels on store roofs. By the end of this year, our goal is to use 100% renewable energy, using a mixture of solar panels with other technology, such as wind energy and hydro-power providers. We’re not there yet, but are far ahead of other UK retailers.

Style and substance: Conscious collection 16

HM Conscious collection

Style and substance: Conscious collection 16

Travelling is a key part of what I do and I’m rarely in the office. Earlier this month, I travelled to Bangladesh, where I met with a number of non-governmental organisations and ensured that staff in our factories were fairly paid and working in safe conditions. To do this, we have close collaborations with strategic, long-term suppliers to follow the H&M code of conduct and work according to Fair Living Wage method. Then, we visited Paris to launch the Conscious Exclusive collection. The collection is quickly becoming our most popular, with the key silk-blend jacquard coat selling out in just a few hours. This is a coup for sustainable fashion, as it shows that attractive, quality clothing can still be ethical. For this reason, we always take a design-first approach and decide how we want the garments to look before creating materials with our product developers in Shanghai.

Sustainability initiatives are received differently from country to country. Responses to the look of collections are always positive, but levels of awareness of environmental issues often vary. Russia is a less mature market on this front, as is China. Nonetheless, the markets that we connect with are always extremely interested and excited by our projects. In our 370 stores in China, they’re now doing the most garment collecting per capita across them. In Scandinavia, however, the reception is always great as green living forms part of our upbringing. We’re all about mending, swapping and buying second-hand, because we believe nature belongs to everyone so we should all look after it.

As 80% of garments have a negative environmental impact, in 2014 we decided to change the way we work and started developing the first Conscious Collection, which launched in 2007. Back then, we only operated in 17 markets worldwide, whereas now we’re in 61 so we’ve been able to carry this message across the world. 

I’m proudest of our involvement with the Clevercare label that launched in 2014, which encourages consumers to wash garments at a lower temperature. By simply washing at a lower temperature, the environmental impact can be almost halved. Stella McCartney and Nike use the Clevercare label, which was developed by Ginetex with the intention that the label should be available free of charge for all licensees. The beauty of the label is that it can be used by any brand, meaning its influence is truly global.

Encouraging transparency is my next project. I’m working with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to develop a product sustainability index breaking down a garment’s CO2 emissions, water usage and showing whether it was made in a factory providing fair living wages, so consumers will be able to compare brands and make conscious choices.

To be successful, sustainability must be democratic. By 2020, we want to replace unsustainably grown cotton, because it’s a very thirsty crop and chemically intense to grow, and get all H&M collections from sustainable sources. The alternative is organic or recycled cotton. I don’t want our products to be inaccessible to those on a lower wage – as is often the case with organic food – so I’m working to ensure that this is never reflected on the price tag.

I want to see collaboration rather than competition across the fashion industry. Many brands are already part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is a heartening start, but we’ve still a long way to go. The ultimate goal would be to have an industry working together, with mutual sustainability goals.

 

 

My Other Career

I always dreamed of doing foreign correspondence, as travel is a passion of mine and I trained in journalism. Even though I’m not writing anymore, I’m still very in touch with the media to monitor global sustainability trends and news.

CV

Education

1983-1985 Fashion Writing HND (Higher National Diploma), London College of Fashion

 

Career

2015-present Sustainability manager, H&M UK and Ireland

2009-2015 Head of sustainable fashion, H&M head office, Stockholm

2005-2008 Trend co-ordinator, H&M head office, Stockholm

2003-2005 Head of fashion PR, H&M head office, Stockholm

1995-2002 Damernas Värld magazine, Sweden

1987-1992 Fashion editor, Elle, Sweden

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