High-street fashion is in a stir. For the first time, one of the world’s four largest fashion houses, Stockholm-based H&M, has a woman at the helm. But it’s not only gender that marks out Helena Helmersson, it’s her CV.
Helmersson has bounced around a number of functions during her 22-year career at H&M. After a stint in purchasing, she has completed spells in human resources in Bangladesh, global production in Hong Kong and, most recently, as operations chief back in Sweden.
Yet, her star really began to shine during time as the brand’s head of sustainability between 2010 and 2015. She won plaudits for helping blaze a trail for greater circularity through recycling and reuse of garments. On her watch, H&M’s use of sustainable cotton more than tripled and the volume of used clothes collected from stores quadrupled.
But it wasn’t all roses. Most notably, her time overlapped with the high-profile collapse of a clothing factory in Dhaka, killing more than 1,100 workers and raising serious questions about labour standards in the supply chain. H&M was not directly involved, but as a significant procurer from Bangladesh, it felt the reputational fallout.
Helmersson’s stellar rise indicates that the C-suite is, at long last, opening its doors to sustainability. But what does this mean for the current crop of sustainability leaders? And how, if at all, might it reshape future boardrooms?
Sustainability leaders: more hard-headed
For sustainability leaders, H&M’s decision is welcome, but some perspective is required. C-suite recruiters are not about to start searching sustainability departments for their next chief executive hire.
That’s the view of Mike Barry, at any rate. He should know. For nearly 15 years, he headed up sustainable business at UK retailer Marks & Spencer. During that time, he saw social and environmental issues occupy increasing amounts of boardroom time and headspace.
Leaders need to be less of a scientist or spokesperson, and more engaged in what the business does and how it does it
Until now, sustainability professionals have overwhelmingly been subject experts, Barry notes. Typically, they would start out as environmental managers, as he did, and slowly move their way up. Now that’s all changing.
Sure, sustainability leaders must be on top of their brief, he says. But they also need to be commercially minded and knowledgeable about core business, as comfortable with a profit-and-loss statement as a carbon emissions’ chart.