scorecardH&M is partnering with a building materials company to achieve its sustainability goals. Here's a look at how they work together.
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H&M is partnering with a building materials company to achieve its sustainability goals. Here's a look at how they work together.

Erin Greenawald   

H&M is partnering with a building materials company to achieve its sustainability goals. Here's a look at how they work together.
LifeInternational4 min read

  • H&M group is aiming to use 100% sustainable materials by 2030 and be climate positive by 2040.
  • To get there, it's partnering with Biomason, a company that uses biology to produce cement.
  • The tiles are being tested in offices and projected to be in public locations by 2022.

For all the environmental flack that fast fashion gets, H&M Group has set some aggressive sustainability goals for its family of brands. These include using 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and having a climate-positive supply chain - one that creates an overall positive impact on the climate - by 2040.

"That includes not only the materials and products that we sell to customers but also all the material that we use to facilitate our businesses, such as store interiors, packaging, etc.," Mattias Bodin, the lead of H&M Group's Circular Innovation Lab, told Insider.

The challenge? Many of the solutions they're going to need don't exist yet or haven't scaled to the commercial level a major retailer would need. That's why, among other strategies, H&M Group is doubling down on partnerships with innovative companies around the world to develop a portfolio of more sustainable materials.

"We want to lead the industry toward a systemic change - a new way to produce and enjoy fashion - and that's not really something that one company can achieve on its own, so we need to work in partnerships," Bodin said.

One such agreement is with North Carolina-based company Biomason, the only company in the world using biology to produce cement commercially. Traditional cement production releases carbon as a byproduct and accounts for 8% of global CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, Biomason's first commercially available product, bioLITH tiles, has the lowest carbon footprint on the market while exceeding the performance of traditional materials. Their work could have a massive impact in constructing buildings in a more sustainable way.

Stakeholders from both companies shared how other companies can negotiate partnerships that benefit each other - and the world at large.

Align on where you are and where you want to be

H&M Group first learned about Biomason at a sustainable materials conference back in 2019. They were immediately impressed by how much the bioLITH tiles looked like the existing materials used in H&M Group stores.

It was clear that they were aesthetically aligned, but Biomason's CEO and president Ginger Krieg Dosier said in order to figure out whether they would be good partners, it was critical to ensure they were also aligned on their vision for the technology.

For instance, H&M Group was interested in creating tiles that were larger and thinner than Biomason's original prototype. "It's important to be really direct about what they're asking for and be able to quickly suss out whether that's possible. And then the next meetings are really about how you can partner together to develop this in a tandem way," Dosier said.

She also suggested not over-promising what you'll be able to achieve. "It's critical to be transparent about where you are in the technology development based on what they're asking so that you're enabling them to join you on that journey of figuring this out," Dosier said. "That to me is what a true partner is. It's different from a customer relationship."

Test and develop together

Even though both parties were excited about the potential partnership, the larger deal wasn't inked immediately. Instead, H&M Group opted to run several tests of the product, first in the workshop of their Circular Innovation Lab and then on the floors of their headquarters. "This step-by-step approach helps us gain momentum and gain knowledge," Bodin said, allowing them to see how the material performed against needs like durability and stain resistance.

This process also helped Biomason better understand what their products need to deliver in practice, rather than doing R&D in a vacuum. "These products have to perform beyond sustainability and beyond aesthetics: They need to perform in an environment where they have heavy use. Working with H&M in this way - sending them prototypes and getting iterative feedback - accelerates our ability to make that happen," Dosier said. Even now that the joint development partnership is official, the teams are continuing to refine and iterate together before hopefully starting to test the tiles in public locations in 2022.

All in all, these kinds of partnerships are an exciting way for innovative companies to see other potential applications for their technology and find opportunities to push the boundaries of what they can do. "We're always looking for partners who look beyond where we are today to join us in developing the next use case," Dosier said.

Make the relationship two-sided

"One of the missions with our Circular Innovation Lab is to find new materials and startups, but also to support those startups and entrepreneurs in moving toward commercialization. It's a two-way street: We need them, they need us," Bodin said.

Part of that means providing benefits outside of money alone. "It's really important to look into what you can really offer each other. There's a piece of cofunding, surely, but there might be many other things that we can offer that perhaps we take for granted but could really add value for the partner," Bodin said. Bodin pointed out how H&M Group's supply-chain connections, publicity, and marketing power can really benefit the smaller companies they're partnering with.

Another major - and perhaps surprising - term that H&M Group believes in is not asking for any exclusivity in their partnership agreements. Even if these partners were to work with H&M's competitors, Bodin isn't worried: "We might be competing on one level, but when it comes to creating a sustainable future, that's not really where we're competing."