Great ResignationInflationSupply ChainsLeadership

H&M made its former sustainability chief its CEO. Now it wants to help other fashion houses become sustainable—for a fee

March 4, 2020, 4:15 PM UTC

Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz, one of the world’s top three fashion retailers, has been on a sustainability kick in recent years. Now it wants to share its progress with rivals—for a price.

In one of its first major moves since appointing former sustainability chief Helena Helmersson as CEO in January, H&M on Wednesday launched an initiative called Treadler that will give other companies access to H&M’s global supply chain and even help them with product development.

H&M’s aim here is—in the words of Treadler managing director Gustaf Asp—to “utilize the full potential of H&M Group’s extensive investments and progressive sustainability work by catering to clients’ needs and contributing to driving long-term growth for H&M Group, while driving change in our industry.”

The company is not providing many details, but said Treadler’s clients will be able to draw on its expertise and its established supplier partnerships. A spokesperson also said some “midsize” companies had expressed a demand for services such as these.

There is certainly a need out there for sustainable supply-chain expertise and access. This is an industry that, according to United Nations estimates, may be responsible for as much as a tenth of the world’s carbon emissions. Almost three-quarters of its output ends up burned or dumped in landfill. Big investors are increasingly calling for fashion houses to be able to demonstrate accurate monitoring of their supply chains, in order to fix these problems.

But, as Zilingo CEO Ankiti Bose wrote for Fortune last year, the supply chain’s fragmentation makes it difficult and overly expensive for smaller fashion brands—who lack serious economies of scale—to produce environmentally and socially responsible garments.

It is not surprising to see the Treadler initiative coming from H&M. Not coincidentally, the firm’s new CEO was its head of sustainability from 2010 to 2014 before becoming head of production and then chief operating officer. Helmersson’s appointment as chief executive was seen as a signal that H&M intended to ramp up improvements in the sustainability of its supply chain. Now the group is set to capitalize on that work in a new way, earning a service fee by plugging other fashion outfits into that supply chain.

However, H&M has also frequently found itself under fire on sustainability grounds, despite its very public efforts to present itself as a leader in the field.

It may tout its use of recycled materials, its emissions-reduction goals, and its use of artificial intelligence to make “sustainable business decisions”, but H&M is nonetheless a “fast fashion” firm that makes a lot of cheap, disposable clothing. Environmental campaigners have accused it of over-selling its recycling claims, and consumer advocates have charged it with misrepresenting its “sustainability credentials” in its marketing.

According to Deborah Drew, the lead researcher on sustainable fashion at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., it is “good to have avenues to sustainable action be paved a little bit, especially for smaller companies [but] ultimately the volume being produced [by the fashion industry] can outweigh the efficiencies of sustainability practices.”

What the industry really needs is new business models that slash the need for so much production and consumption, Drew said.

“There is a lot we don’t know about the future, but we do know that the need for affordable clothing will continue to increase and our industry is expected to grow,” a Treadler spokesperson said when asked how H&M reconciles its sustainability driver with its fast-fashion nature. “As fashion and apparel will continue to be produced, our goal is to do that in a more sustainable way. The fashion industry cannot continue to operate as it has in the past…We believe that the best way forward is through partnerships, knowledge sharing and transparency.”

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