It’s been a busy week in Germany for H&M. The company, which has 4,900 stores in over 70 markets, unveiled a range of new and experimental projects it was working on in central Europe, then topped all that with a conference in Berlin for around 300 invitees, the second Change Makers Lab.
H&M revealed the completion of its online platform rollout in Germany this week, and in its annual sustainability report, detailed a number of successes, including the extension of a Hamburg pilot project called Take Care — the initiative teaches customers how to take better care of products in order to extend garments’ life — to other territories. The chain also announced that from April, H&M customers will be able to have a man’s shirt made to measure in certain German locations, as the company collaborates with a Berlin-based start-up, ZyseMe.
And for the first time, a German start-up won one of the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Awards, which offers innovators a share of 1 million euros in funding support. The Berlin-based software developers at Circular.fashion, who are constructing an online platform for sourcing environmentally friendly and recycled materials, were awarded 300,000 euros after competing with more than 6,600 entries from 182 countries. The other winners came from as far afield as Peru, the U.K., Switzerland and Kenya and were engaged in activities as diverse as making textiles out of nettles, faux leather out of fruit, nontoxic membranes for outdoor clothing, and clothes that grow along with the children who wear them.
The Change Makers Lab, held in the German capital on Friday, offered the company further opportunities to show off its efforts in sustainability and digital tech. Besides listening to speakers and taking part in workshops on fair wages and the ethics of artificial intelligence, as well as a hackathon on recyclable packaging, attendees could experience some of that progress firsthand. They could even taste it — guests were served oddly seaweed-flavored chocolates, infused with the same algae that will be used in the next H&M Conscious Collection.
One popular booth by Stockholm’s Warpin Media allowed users wearing virtual reality goggles to redecorate vintage T-shirts using an “augmented reality” design process. “It’s just an experiment right now but in the future, it might be possible for H&M customers to use an app on their phone to do this with their own T-shirts,” explained Warpin’s Emma Raventos. “It’s all about extending the life of the garment.”
In another corner, attendees undertook a virtual factory tour using the goggles. Nearby, others investigated the transparency “button,” a tool that uses blockchain technology to show the provenance of a beanie made by the H&M brand Arket.
Next to them, Per Gunnarsson from H&M’s IT lab, demonstrated how customers could ensure a better fit when ordering online: Using a system currently being trialed in several markets, they could scan their body and face using a smartphone app, which then converted their pictures into a 3-D avatar. The avatar could then be used to try on H&M clothing online. “In the future, sizes as we know them may no longer be relevant,” Gunnarsson predicted enthusiastically. “[Sizes] were there for the purpose of mass production. But we’ll have other means of production in the future, clothes will be made to measure and you will only have to fit ‘your size’,” he suggested.
Arti Zeighami, H&M’s head of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, went into detail about how the company had been using data from 900 million transactions to improve both sustainability and profitability and to deal with the retailer’s well-documented problem of billions of euros in excess inventory and discounted stock. In the past, H&M has tended to have a standardized set-up for its stores, dependent on size and location, so things like store fittings could be mass finished, he explained. But, by looking more carefully at the data generated by customers in the catchment area near just one store in Stockholm, it became clear patrons wanted products other than what was available there.
“We thought, hey, let’s give them what they really want,” Zeighami said. This meant a move away from standards: Different stock, a different look and feel in store and, in fact, fewer of certain products. Zeighami couldn’t provide figures but boasted that sales improved. “And we also saw online sales increase because customers were coming in and getting inspired. It became an omnichannel thing.”
There were also some unexpected announcements at the conference. During a workshop on transportation, Stockholm-based sustainability manager for logistics Lina Ödeen revealed that this summer, H&M customers in Milan and the Netherlands could be getting their orders via electric scooters or Rollerblades, while in the U.K., they might arrive in biofuel-powered and electric vehicles. “We’re trying to do every single thing we can to decrease the inner-city traffic and improve the air quality,” she explained.
As for the rollerblading couriers in Milan, Ödeen explained that this simply became an option because they found somebody who could supply the service in Italy. If the pilot projects go well, H&M customers in other cities can also expect deliveries by scooter and Rollerblade, she added.
Of course, all of this experimentation costs money. In light of 2018’s displeasing quarterly results — H&M saw an unexpected drop in sales, the first in two decades, and the company seems to only just be recovering this quarter — is this kind of investment warranted? “H&M is still very much a family business and in that sense, we take a long-term perspective,” H&M’s head of sustainability Anna Gedda told WWD. “We are operating in a rapidly changing environment and we have to react to that. But moving forward, we see sustainability as a prerequisite — and all this effort is really an investment in ourselves, in our customers and in a more effective and efficient supply chain.”
Editor’s Note: This store has been updated to reflect a change in the use of the biofuel vehicles in the U.K.