How do you make change? Lessons from H&M’s Change Makers Lab

By Caroline Carson, Senior Consultant, Salterbaxter

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO, H&M, speaking about H&M’s new goals at the Change Makers Lab on 4 April 2017

Whether it’s behaviours, systems or policies, bringing about a desired outcome that goes against the current requires a conscious decision to do things differently. With enough evidence in front of us that tells us what needs to happen in order to sustain life without catastrophic harm to people and planet — and by when — leading organisations and companies are nailing their colours to the mast by interpreting how they fit into this future context. For a few years now the best corporate sustainability strategies have been those that not only acknowledge global megatrends and planetary boundaries, but embed this thinking through science-based targets.

But when you know what your business needs to do, what comes next? How much of the path to reach them needs to be known?

It’s becoming clearer that for the world’s most pressing challenges such as climate change and resource constraints, there is simply not the time to wait until enough of the answers are available and tested. Commitments need to stimulate responses as simply the act of setting a goal can trigger the actions required to reach it.

In the case of the recent H&M Change Makers Lab, we’ve been fortunate to witness attempts to force change live and in front of us. Having worked with the global apparel leader in updating their corporate sustainability strategy to reflect their big ambitions and external frameworks, H&M acknowledged that they didn’t have all the answers on how to deliver it.

The Change Makers Lab in Stockholm on 4th April was a major global stakeholder event partly to launch the strategy and agenda-changing goals including climate positivity by 2040, using only more sustainable materials by 2030, and powering their tier 1 and 2 suppliers by 100% renewable energy by 2030, but also to further fuel that process of major change.

The day had focused sessions structured around each of their strategy areas — climate, transparency, fair and equal and the circular economy. By inviting the leading thinkers from business and brands, academia, the policy world, behavioural scientists, investors, start-ups and campaign groups we were able to move beyond just talking around the issues. For H&M it was critical that the people in the room challenged thinking, interrogated ideas and potential solutions, sought collaborations and made actual connections from which both H&M and other actors could take forward inspiration to enact.

In just the sessions I attended I heard offers between brands to partner on landscape-based climate resilience, commitments to investigate joint funding models for solar panels in supply chain factories and was inspired by completely new ways to tackle problems. For instance, you could consider that H&M is not really fashion company at all, but an agricultural investor. Johan Kuylenstierna, Executive Director at the Stockholm Environment Institute asked us to think about investments in soils as carbon sinks and a positive mentality to the resilience-based solutions that the environment offered is more constructive than staring down at the scale of a problem.

Some of the most memorable quotes for me from the day were those that reminded us to open up about what it means to change and challenge the norm:

Anna Gedda, H&M’s Head of Sustainability: “Change doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens when people meet.”
Dilys Williams, Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion: “When people participate, inquire, open up and commit and when the intended and unintended consequences are considered”
Magnus Lindkvist, Futurologist and trend forecaster: “We do our best work when there’s creative friction. In turmoil and tension new ideas are found”

Events like these can be unique ways to bring people together for change in one fell swoop. For all that our world is now digital and barriers to collaboration have been taken down by technology and 24-hour communication channels, in the sustainability world as much as any other area, you can feel like you’re making a lot of noise shouting into a void or preaching to the converted. Sometimes it takes a getting people in a room together around a common focus to remind us how different approaches can refresh a hunt for solutions to a mutual problem.