The citizens of Dhaka, Bangladesh, know a thing or two about fresh water. They know there isn’t much of it, for starters. And they know that what exists isn’t very fresh. And much of that has to do with the local textile industry.
Bangladesh has more than 1,700 washing, dyeing and finishing units, many of them clustered around the capital. Together, they consume 1,500bn litres of water, much of which is then returned as chemically-charged waste.
Clothing retailer H&M says it wants to help. Many of the clothes in its high street stores started life in Bangladesh. Many others originate in China’s textile belt where similar water problems are unfolding. To put that right, the Swedish clothing giant has unveiled what it says is an ambitious water management strategy. "This is about stewardship, meaning that we want to become a leader to take responsibility in the whole value chain," says Helena Helmersson, H&M’s head of sustainability.
The strategy includes 30 water-connected objectives and activities in five different focus areas: raising awareness around water, increasing knowledge about water impacts in the value chain, internal actions around water management, engaging external stakeholders, and influencing governments on water policy. The strategy will cover Bangladesh as well as other operations in China and Asia.
It’s a laudable ambition. But will it work? There is evidence for hope. First, the strategy doesn’t come out of the blue. H&M has a steady track record on tackling water issues, dating back to 2005 when it joined the Better Cotton Initiative. It can claim some notable successes too. In Bangladesh, for example, its main denim manufacturers cut water use by a third simply by cutting out unnecessary washes – the equivalent of by 300m litres.
The high-street brand is teaming up with WWF and from H&M’s perspective, the environmental conservation charity brings the local expertise and technical knowledge that it lacks in-house. For WWF, it’s an opportunity to move from "ad hoc and piecemeal" engagement with the textile sector to a more "cohesive strategy".
As WWF’s fresh water manager Stuart Orr explains: "We’re not going to change the world through [changing] one company at a time. We hope that these more holistic partnerships … will generate a stronger strategy built on everything we’ve learned and everything that companies are grappling with."
H&M is not the only apparel brand to make a push for water efficiency as Levi’s Water<Less jeans or Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index demonstrate. However, what’s different about this week’s announcement is H&M’s explicit commitment to look beyond its own four walls and engage others, through a holistic approach.
Suppliers, rightly, find themselves at the top of H&M’s to-do list. In the first instance, the company has committed to engage 190 of its largest garment producers. That’s no small feat, but it still leaves 560 direct suppliers waiting in line.
Further back in the chain, there are fabric producers to consider too. H&M’s alliance with the Better Cotton Initiative is helping to address water-use issues at farm level. Helmersson admits that these efforts will need to "increase quite fast" if BCI members are going to meet their goal of 100% cotton from sustainable sources by 2020. Cotton, it needs to be noted, is only part of H&M’s fabric mix.
One big sticking point when it comes to reducing water impacts in the garment supply chain is technological innovation. "There’s some research in this area, but the challenge is finding the right innovations and scaling them up", says Helmersson.
Working across industry marks another big challenge. H&M says it hopes to "inspire" others to follow its lead. Again, it’s a good aim but retail brands are a notoriously jealous lot. With few wanting to play second fiddle, industry-wide initiatives tend to be the most effective way forward.
Bangladesh boasts a model case already in the International Finance Corporation’s cross-sector Partnership for Cleaner Textile, which involves 200 garment factories and 15 brands.
Although the strategy has aims and a to-do list, the company says they haven’t created targets – another area that they may need to build on to achieve their ambitions.
If H&M’s new partnership is to achieve its "holistic" ambitions it needs to look up the value chain too. Customers use water directly in clothes washing and indirectly when throwing them away. Before it tackles changes in consumer behaviour, it needs to get its own employees on board, Helmersson admits. The retailer is therefore planning a communications blitz to all its 94,000 staff this year around water use and sustainability more generally.
The last element in H&M’s water strategy is public policy. As Helmersson explains: "It’s crucial to have a good dialogue with policy makers, but we need to find ways to collaborate with others to make that happen." She hopes WWF can help here. Realistically, some bigger hitters might be needed too. Wastewater treatment isn’t mandatory for Bangladesh’s textile industry at present, for instance. If politicians really cared, they could change that tomorrow. It’s changing the initial "if" that’s tricky.
For its part, WWF is under no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead. "Looking at water is a pretty daunting prospect for any company", says Orr. "You don’t solve these issues in five minutes. They take a lot of time, a lot of dialogue, a lot of repetitive action."
H&M and WWF have given themselves three years to get cracking. In fashion cycles, that’s a lifetime. Those in China and Bangladesh’s textile regions have every right to think the same. Is it worth the wait? They’ll be looking to groundwater levels to decide.
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