Maritha Lorentzon is a Sustainability Business Expert on Human Rights at H&M. She has seen the development in the demand of sustainability and business transparency up close during the past 20 years, and has assisted in driving change, both within the H&M Group and the apparel industry at large. This is her story:

“I joined the H&M group in 1984 and have held various positions in both production and the head office since then. In 1998, I started to work at the H&M Sustainability Department in Stockholm. In this reflection I look back at the progress that sustainability has made in the last 20 years. Of course, this is from an H&M group perspective, but I imagine it will reflect and mirror the kind of development the whole sector has gone through.

 

The First Steps: Understanding Our Supply Chain

At H&M, we started our sustainability journey in 1998. However, at this time we worked quite differently from today. We worked in isolation – in silos – and ‘transparency’ was not yet a buzz word. Back in 1998, the H&M group decided to set up an internal organization, at head quarter level but also locally in our different sourcing markets. We kept our knowledge about the supply chain to ourselves, which was at times widely criticized and led to an atmosphere of mistrust.

However, these first steps proved to be the start of a positive change. It led to a better understanding of not only our supply chain but also the reality on the ground in the countries where we sourced. We still had a long way to go though as, looking back now, it is clear that auditing programs at the time were more about policing than trust building.

 

Next Stop: Start of the Multi-Stakeholder Approach

In 2005, we became a member of several multi-stakeholder initiatives such as Better Factories Cambodia; MFA Forum; and Local Brands Forum. This led to further development of our internal audit program; characterized by a focus on management systems and supplier ownership. Still, these multi-stakeholder forums were limited in terms of who took part in the initiatives. Also, the discussions often took place in meeting rooms in Europe or the USA and focused mainly on health and safety. These areas were considered ‘safe’ in terms of transparency.

 

Acceleration: Increasing Pace of Progress

Five years later, we could see a clear shift of focus; when workers’ voices and the down-up approach were introduced. This was also when reward systems to score good suppliers were developed and talk about long-term relationships became more common. More membership organizations and multi-stakeholder initiatives were also added to our list: SAC; FLA; Garment Round Table India; and others. In addition, we further developed our audit program and capacity building projects to include more complex issues such as freedom of association; social dialogue; discrimination; and workers’ rights. The discussions in different forums opened up with a more transparent attitude; acknowledging that problems exist in the industry, and that collaboration would be a way to address these challenges. However, at that time one important stakeholder group wasn’t at all visible or heard: the manufacturers. This changed when SAC opened that door and invited manufacturers to join hands with brands and other stakeholders. This marked a big change in this sense.

 

Driving Change: SLCP

Looking back, we see it has taken almost 15 years to start creating an inclusive sustainability world, where the manufacturers have a natural space to interact and take ownership for their industry. When the invitation from SLCP reached us in 2016, we immediately knew this was something we wanted to fully support. It was in line with what we saw as the direction of travel for audits in general. The journey so far with SLCP has not always been easy. Driving with a consensus approach requires all parties to compromise and to truly listen to each other’s arguments with an open mind. It has taken time to overcome the ‘us and them’ positioning created by the audit landscape. However, SLCP has managed to lead us out of deadlock and we are definitely now on the right track. This is the case in terms of sharing ownership and responsibility, but also when it comes to saving resources to use for a better cause: building capacity in the supply chain. Transparency and collaboration are now the buzz words!

 

Looking Ahead: The Journey Continues

The challenge ahead is to go from words to action; from agreement to implementation. The transition from internal monitoring programs to a common tool will not be without hick-ups, but I am confident it can happen. Through the process of developing the Converged Assessment Framework, SLCP has demonstrated its capacity to learn and evolve. The recent Light Operation provided an additional wealth of learnings that will lead to even further improvements. I look forward to reflecting again five years from now at which point I hope the whole sector will have adopted SLCP and that it will be a natural part of companies’ sustainability programs.

Maritha Lorentzon

Sustainability Business Expert on Human Rights, H&M