H&M Sustainable Production Africa Summit: Talking about circularity

When will H&M start production in South Africa? This is a question Caroline Nelson, H&M Country Manager for South Africa, keeps asking.

Caroline Nelson, H&M Country Manager for South Africa. Source: Delivered

No wonder, as the Swedish fashion retail giant has steadily expanded its presence in South Africa to 27 stores since its inception in 2015 and now employs 900 South Africans in its local operations. But despite production facilities around the world and cooperation with some local brandsit produces no garments in SA, a country whose once thriving textile and clothing industry has been all but decimated by cheap foreign imports.

But things appear to be taking a turn for the local industry, with a renewed focus on localization being a strong feature in many South African clothing retailers’ strategies for years to come.

For H&M to start production here, however, Nelson says it must be a viable business move for the company. And in terms of the technology and infrastructure for sustainable production, “South Africa isn’t quite there yet,” she said, particularly when it comes to making sustainable fashion that’s affordable and accessible to the majority of consumers.

Source: Delivered

Source: Delivered

“We don’t want to produce like we did 20 years ago,” remarked Nelson. She was speaking at the H&M Sustainable Production Africa Summit, an event recently held in Cape Town to facilitate discussion between retailers and suppliers to build a sustainable South African clothing industry – one that produces competitively but reduces waste and uses water and minimizes energy and chemicals.

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At the event, Nelson called on local retailers to work together to create a sustainable future for South African garment manufacturing that will benefit both domestic and international producers.

“The goal is to support each other to make South Africa the global future of sustainable production. Our goal is to drive the shift towards a circular and net-zero fashion and use our scale to create a better industry.”

On the way to a circular product life cycle

As a major global fast fashion player, H&M has faced criticism for unsustainable production methods in the past. But the company was on track to clean up its operations and supply chain, redesigning its manufacturing operations to meet its 2040 target with net carbon emissions.

To achieve this, the company has focused its investments on technologies to improve production design, efficient recycling and the development of new materials that have less impact on the planet.

H&M is aiming to double sales while reducing its environmental impact, said Harsha Bammanahali, H&M’s head of material innovation and strategy, who attended the event virtually. To that end, the retailer is working to decouple growth from natural resources to enable a fully circular lifecycle for products.

“Most of the clothing produced worldwide ends up in landfill. This is a problem for sustainability, but also for companies because we are throwing away valuable resources. Fashion should be able to support itself by reusing resources that are thrown away.”

Part of the sustainability journey involves improving demand forecasting to reduce overproduction. Bammanahali also highlighted H&M’s launch of an an internal carbon pricing model and tool to help quantify the cost of emissions from the group’s various decisions.

Regarding textiles, Gagan Bansal, Head of Material Innovation and Strategy at H&M, noted during the event that the retailer aims to use 100% sustainable or sustainably-sourced materials by 2030 and target 30 recycled materials by 2050 % of those used for H&M products. In case new materials are needed, H&M prefers natural fibers made with regenerative processes.

Currently, the majority of H&M’s global wool is sourced from South Africa, and the retailer aims to support the development of more sustainable wool production by working with WWF and regenerative farming projects in the rural grasslands of the Eastern Cape.

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Wrong perception around sustainable production

During a panel entitled “Solutions for the 21st Century”, Mike Mikkelborg, Founder of Sustainable Fashion Strategy, expressed high hopes for the potential of South African garment manufacturing, comparing it to “a rising phoenix”. He said that as SA has yet to develop an industry-wide, sustainable apparel manufacturing operation, this will allow the industry to lay the groundwork for a “better rebuild from scratch.”

“There is a wrong image of sustainable production. In terms of margins, it’s no less attractive. Factories with good working conditions have higher productivity,” he noted.

Mikkelborg reiterated that manufacturing in South Africa can be a powerful job generator, but said retailers need to start with clear goals and then bring government and investors together.

“I believe South Africa can be a significant producer for both local and international brands,” he said.

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