Following in the footsteps of his father, and his grandfather before that, Karl-Johan Persson took over as chief executive and managing director of H&M Group in 2009 and used his position to champion sustainability in the fast fashion industry. In January 2020, Persson stepped down as chief executive to succeed his father as chairman of the company.
As one of the world’s largest high street retailers, H&M Group has been thrust under the spotlight in recent industry debates surrounding the ethics and environmental consequences of fast fashion. But under Persson, H&M Group led the charge for high street fashion businesses to become more sustainable. “We need to keep growing and at the same time, respect our planet’s boundaries,” he writes on the company’s website.
In addition to the company’s annual sustainability report, Persson moved to improve working conditions in supply factories — after the 2011 Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1,100 garment workers — including hiring around 100 people to check standards in suppliers. He also launched a fair living wage initiative that promised to affect around 850,000 Bangladeshi workers by 2018, publicly calling on the Bangladeshi government for support, but this target is yet to be achieved.
Persson’s tenure as chief executive was not an easy one. Taking the helm in the midst of the global financial meltdown, in 2011, H&M Group was dealt another blow when it was overtaken as the world’s largest retailer by Inditex, Zara’s parent company. However, the brand's loyalty programme has more than 40 million members.
Prior to becoming chief executive, Persson was head of Cos, another brand in the H&M Group family, and oversaw its launch in 2004. He described the experience to The Financial Times in 2013 as “a great education because it’s like a mini H&M.”
Before joining his family’s company in 2004 — his grandfather founded the retailer in 1947 — Persson helped to set up the European Network, an international events management company — a decision he made in order to prove himself outside of his family’s empire. Persson graduated from the European Business School in London in 2000.