IKEA and H&M on keeping up with sustainability during a global pandemic

NRF 2021 – Chapter 1: IKEA and H&M discuss the significance of sustainability that Gen Z is counting on

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, which raises a question: What effect has it had on people who were already trying to change the world? A fast-paced discussion at NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show – Chapter 1, moderated by Bloomberg retail reporter Jordyn Holman, took up this issue. Joining her were Abigail Kammerzell, U.S. sustainability manager for H&M, and Jennifer Keesson, U.S. sustainability manager for IKEA.

One obvious effect of the pandemic, Keesson said, is that people are spending a lot more time at home, which changes their relationship to home. For one thing, they’re trying to find multifunctional uses for what’s already there: letting a dining table also serve as a desk, for example.

“There’s also the fact that people’s wallets are smaller,” she said. “At IKEA, we’re moving ahead with sustainability while working to understand the important and urgent needs customers have, and how to support them through these unprecedented times.”

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This does not mean, both panelists emphasized, any reduction in their companies’ commitment to environmental and social sustainability.

“We regard sustainability as key to recovery from the pandemic,” Kammerzell said. “We’re working with our customers and the supply chain to enable people who want to wear our clothing to do so in a manner that’s safe for the planet and for themselves.”

Gen Z leads the way

Much of the pressure for sustainability comes from consumers, noted Holman, especially young ones. She asked the panelists what the young, and Gen Z in particular, have shown them about how their companies can lead in this area.

“Having grown up as digital natives,” Kammerzell said, “they understand — maybe better than any preceding generation — how to access information. And they’re really demanding about it. They want to know where our clothing is made and out of what, what the social implications of that are, and what’s the responsibility of the consumer once they’re done with it.

“On top of that,” she said, “Gen Z has definite expectations about what a business is: It’s not just here to provide an item, it’s also here to improve the society and community in which it operates.”

“Gen Z has definite expectations about what a business is: It’s not just here to provide an item, it’s also here to improve the society and community in which it operates.”

Abigail Kammerzell, U.S. sustainability manager for H&M

The growth issue

One thing businesses do, at least successful ones, is grow. Particularly during the pandemic, home is a growth category. “Overconsumption is part of the conversation about sustainability,” Holman said. “How is IKEA maintaining its sustainability efforts in the face of this?”

“That’s a question for the whole retail industry,” Keesson replied. IKEA is trying to encourage customers to be more sustainable at home, which begins with providing information and asking questions. What’s this made of? Can it be multifunctional? How can we prolong its life? How do we handle the back end, i.e., disposal, in the least damaging way? How do we control the secondhand market?

As part of this effort, IKEA launched a “turn Black Friday Green” campaign during the past holiday season. “Rather than promoting a sale,” Keesson said, “we promoted things to do with furniture you already have.”

Kammerzell noted the growing circularity movement in the garment industry: Rather than allowing discarded garments to end up in a landfill, they are passed on through the growing secondhand market or refashioned into something else.

In the United States, H&M encourages this with in-store drop-off bins, through education, and, she said, by being very honest with customers.

Tough issues

In closing, Holman brought up the very human issue of inequality. How, she asked, is equality part of the sustainability conversation?

“There can be no climate justice without racial justice,” Kammerzell said, under which she included not just discrimination on the basis of race but of gender as well: 80 percent of garment workers, she noted, are women, but the overwhelming majority of management and leadership positions are held by men.

H&M doesn’t have a ready-made solution to this (or to related issues, such as the fact that in garment manufacturing, 70 percent of CO2 emissions happen during production). But the company is aware of it and willing to talk about it.

“Equality is important,” Kammerzell said, “especially in fashion. Fashion is inspired by many different cultures, but there’s a gatekeeping that happens. You can’t say you’re fair and equal if you aren’t.”

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