SDGs, an opportunity to address systemic industry-wide challenges through collaboration

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SDGs, an opportunity to address systemic industry-wide challenges through collaboration

Gustav Lovén, Global Social Sustainability Manager, H&M

H&M is a Swedish fashion retailer founded in 1947. Today we have 3,700 stores around the world and 130,000 employees. We don’t own any factories ourselves but instead have a supply chain consisting of direct business relationships with suppliers which, all in all, manage and operate almost 2,000 factories and employ 1.6 million people.

More than 60% of those people are women, for many of whom a job in the textile sector is their first opportunity for formal employment. Our firm belief is that when the communities around us prosper, so will our business. As such, sustainability and social responsibility are key parts of our business strategy.

H&M very much welcomes the SDG Agenda, especially its collaborative focus. Sustainable development is a fundamental prerequisite for the continuous success and growth of our company, but as stated in international guidelines such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights it is also a part of our responsibility as a company. Today, all of our business functions have sustainability metrics and goals as part of their regular performance evaluation. We have a global sustainability team, 170 colleagues around the world who work to support the responsibility for sustainability, which lies with each and every one of the 130,000 employees we have around the world.

We are running several initiatives, including programs for fair living wages, industrial relations and social dialogue, as well as initiatives to invest in technologies and processes to close the loop and reach a circular economy, projects relating to climate change and renewable energy, and initiatives relating to women’s empowerment. We are constantly fighting corruption in all forms.

With all of these programs already up and running, what does the SDG Agenda really mean for us? It means a great deal. First, it provides a very clear direction on where we’re going. Secondly, it sets a common agenda shared by all stakeholders. And as such, I think it’s a great tool to help us collaborate with different stakeholders, to jointly tackle the challenges that we are facing.

Two key insights have made collaboration an increasingly important part of our strategy; number one is simply that we need to speed things up. Given the magnitude of the challenges the world is facing, we can no longer continue progress at the current pace. The second insight is that some of the early challenges were solved on a micro level, whereas many of the challenges we are facing now are systemic industry-wide challenges. And as such, even as one of the largest companies in our industry, it is not sufficient to use only our own influence. We need to seek collaboration with other businesses and with different stakeholders to achieve those goals.

Today we have collaborative initiatives ranging from partnerships with governments, business partners and suppliers, international organizations, NGOs, civil society, trade unions, and also with our competitors in the industry. This is a key testimony to the fact that the industry is seeing that we really need to work together to drive change. Ten years ago, collaborating with competitors on the scale we are doing today would not have been possible.

From our experience, one of the key benefits of working with the UN agencies is that we get the opportunity to find a neutral partner. When it comes to working to promote social dialogue and well-functioning industrial relations in our supply chain, we need to work with governments, we need to work with our suppliers, and we need to work with trade unions. The ILO, with its tripartite setup, is a great partner being able to drive change from a neutral perspective but also contribute with important technical expertise. Right now, we have two projects with the ILO related to social dialogue, industrial relations, and skill development. We see it as great examples of how partnership between different sectors can contribute to solving big challenges in a collaborative way.

 This article is an edited and shortened version of Gustav Lovén remarks in the launch of the report Business and the United Nations: Working Together towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Framework for Action”. H&M is member of the SDG Fund’s Private Sector Advisory Group.