NEW YORK, United States — With over 4300 stores, H&M is one of the world’s biggest and most influential retailers. The brand is also one of the fashion industry’s biggest employers with a team of 120,000 people in 71 markets. Over the years, the company has acted as both a pioneer in democratising luxury fashion through its collaborations with major houses including Versace, Balmain and Moschino, and positioned itself as one of the few retailers of global scale seeking to address the ecological impact of its operations, becoming the world’s biggest user of sustainable cotton and man-made cellulosic materials. The company reported revenues of over $25 billion in 2017.
However, last year, the company faced strong criticism regarding the cultural insensitivity of the marketing one of its childrenswear products online. The company’s immediate response was swift, "Our position is simple — we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry. This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn't mean we don't take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused."
Seeking to prevent any similar mistakes from happening again, the company is now rolling out a series of new cultural initiatives designed to increase diversity of representation at all levels of the business, and ensure that the shared experiences, cultures and expertise of its workforce adequately inform its commercial and strategic activities.
To hear more, BoF sat down with Ezinne Kwubiri, the head of inclusion and diversity, North America.
How is the company responding to the criticism it received earlier in the year regarding an e-commerce marketing image?
We are, of course, still very aware of what happened, and still very aware we made a mistake. We’re determined to continue moving forward in a positive way and to create genuine change. One of our values at H&M is constant improvement and we really mean it. These challenges and opportunities are bigger and more important than one incident. We want to know what does real representation really look like at a global scale retailer? How do people feel when they’re walking through the door and how do they feel while working here? Hopefully within the next couple of months people can really see how we have become increasingly active in our communities to build a process of authentic interaction, representation and, importantly, support.
What does your role entail?
I report directly to the president of H&M North America — as well as working closely with Annie Wu, the global head of inclusivity and diversity who is based in Stockholm. I’m coming from a completely different organisation and I want to challenge the status quo. I see myself as the new blood, the new person in the office that is coming with a fresh perspective. I want to challenge the mindset across the board, from the way we do our promotions, to our hiring process, to how we interact with our employees and customers, as well as their communities— who all deserve our support and celebration.
How is H&M approaching its cultural reorientation to ensure it is representative in the future?
We knew we did not want to build our strategy in a reactionary way — filled with the unconscious biases it is being designed to tackle. So, it was really important that we put real data and information first in coming up with our plan. Prior to my joining, the global office in Sweden did a lot of the legwork as far as looking into what our employees are saying and how our customers are feeling. In addition to that, we’ve partnered with external consultants in order to provide further demographic data and launched a series of focus groups that we’ve conducted with our customers as well as internally. This is to take the temperature of the brand, to see how people feel when they think about H&M and see this in data we can use to create positive change.
What areas will you focus on initially as a result of your findings?
We are looking specifically at race, gender, age and sexual orientation, as well as disability and many other areas. For the US, we are seeking to do three things, to educate and raise awareness, to become better advocates for the communities we are a part of, and finally to challenge the status quo and accepted mindset about how we achieve things.
We want to know what does real representation really look like at a global scale retailer?
When we talk about educating, it’s really listening to what the people are saying and ensuring that our teams are equipped with the necessary skills. For the executive management team, we have rolled out a two-step awareness-raising training programme — designed in collaboration with an external expert — focused on unconscious bias and diversity of thought and perspectives. Trainings have already been conducted with prioritised business functions in head office, as well as the executive management team across the organisation. Currently, we are setting up the plan for the remaining functions — all the way through to our store associates to receive the same training.
As advocates, we have also launched a new programme that we’re calling Champions of Change, which is essentially our employee resource group. This internal community will share cultural experiences from diverse backgrounds and differing operational perspectives. We want to offer an open forum for supporting each other and learning from each other. Believing in people is another of our values at H&M and we see our team members and the H&M family as our most effective agents of positive change.
To challenge the mindsets of our management teams, and all of our employees, we have also developed an internal advisory council, which will drive our strategy for inclusivity and diversity throughout our work and our workplaces.
What role does community play in your plans?
Advocating within and on behalf of our communities is fundamental. We are really committed to becoming better advocates in our local communities. I want to empower the team members in our stores who know their markets and communities best, to seek out and support local causes that are meaningful and important to them — and in turn foster that authentic community partnership.
I want to make sure that when someone thinks about H&M, that they know truly what we stand for. From the kind of company that we are to the diverse and inspirational individuals we both employ in the company and empower in the community. The company buy-in behind these projects goes all the way to the top and stretches throughout the organisation.