Fast fashion megabrand H&M embraces diversity with a new ad campaign timed with New York Fashion Week — but is this just another example of H&M’s smoke-and-mirrors marketing? We break down how virtually every seemingly awesome new H&M campaign over the past few years has masked serious problems.
Even in the middle of a weekday afternoon in a Glendale, California, mall, H&M feels packed. There’s not an empty rack in sight, and for the likely hundreds of times I’ve stepped foot in one of their stores, rack space is an anomaly. The possibilities are endless by design, and I’m overwhelmed by the thought that by tomorrow, they’ll hold new treasure.
In recent years, fast fashion has contended with its share of critics. Creating millions of cheap and cheaply made clothes each year at break-neck speed requires cutting as many corners as possible, leaving factory workers underpaid and overworked. When the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 workers, activists around the world called for big brands to step up and address the problems workers face in an industry dependent on their exploitation.
In November 2013, H&M announced their plans to improve pay structures and conditions for factory workers by 2018. The same year, they provided a list of their suppliers to the public, and not long after in 2014, they partnered with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
But this wasn’t all sparked solely by Rana Plaza. Reaching back as far as 2002, the multi-billion dollar brand releases annual “Conscious Actions” and sustainability reports, which are open to the public. They even began a “conscious”clothing collection and kicked off an annual World Recycling Week campaign to collect 1,000 tons of customers’ unwanted clothes in exchange for 30 percent store discounts. Then they started featuring trans and plus models in their ads.
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As the second-largest clothing retailer in the world, with more than 850,000 factory workers creating their goods, H&M’s efforts looked game-changing on paper. How could anyone criticize a company that gives workers a living wage and safe place to work, makes a commitment to sustainable and organic sourcing, works with diverse models and even rewards you for recycling old clothes?
Unfortunately, they’re breaking promises left and right, and sometimes just missing the point altogether.
The problem starts with the fact that the company doesn’t actually own the 820 suppliers and 1,900 factories that produce their garments. Though H&M claims that their team of auditors routinely visit factories, they can only act on the problems they can actually see. Company officials have admitted that holding every part of their network accountable is nearly impossible, and human rights groups continue to expose the flaws and half-truths behind H&M’s lofty claims of conscious capitalism.
Though H&M was the first to sign the 2013 Accord on Fire and Building Safety after Rana Plaza’s collapse, a May 2016 report from the Clean Clothes Campaign revealed that almost all of H&M’s factories were behind schedule for mandated renovations. To put that into perspective, the Wage Alliance reports that 79,000 workers continued to produce garments for H&M in Bangladesh in buildings without proper fire exits as of 2015. We’re not even talking about lunch breaks or fair pay — just a safe way to GTFO in an emergency.
Another scathing report released the same month from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) reveals that women in H&M’s Cambodian and Indian factories were fired for getting pregnant, workers skipped breaks in order to meet their required production rates and more. Additionally, factories routinely skirted labor rules by illegally hiring short-term contract workers who will avoid exercising rights to safe conditions and reasonable hours, for fear of not having their contracts renewed.
This all happens in spite of H&M’s own 2008 “Guidance for Implementation of Good Labour Practices,” of course, but that didn’t stop them from happening in 2015. That same year, H&M’s own audit found Syrian refugee child labor in a Turkish supplier’s factories. In August, two H&M suppliers in Myanmar were exposed for subjecting employees as young as 14 to 12+ hour days as far back as 2013.
H&M took action against these factories upon learning this news, but as each new story of ongoing problems emerge, it’s hard not to wonder how much of H&M’s conscious initiatives are just good marketing. I wish I could say these stories are unique. They’re not.
“H&M’s PR rings hollow to workers who are struggling everyday to feed their families,” Athit Kong, Vice President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union states in the AFWA report. “It serves as a public relations facade to cover up systemic abuse.”
Contrary to popular belief or H&M ads, organic cotton is not wildly more sustainable than the alternative. Organic-certified or not, cotton is one of the most water and energy-intensive crops on the planet, but you wouldn’t know this from H&M’s greenwashed displays touting their commitment to sustainability through organic cotton. By some accounts, H&M’s massive cotton footprint has become its own sustainability issue. Regardless of how or what they source, there’s just no question anymore that 600+ million garments a year is too much.
One could appreciate that H&M has acknowledged this problem and is taking steps to tackle it with the H&M Conscious Foundation’s Global Change Award, which will happily give $1.15 million to the smart cookie who can come up with a way to successfully recycle cotton. Oh yeah, funny thing about that — the fabric of our lives is not recyclable.
Which makes their campaign to collect 1,000 tons of unwanted clothing from customers for World Recycling Week a bit dubious. While H&M trotted out M.I.A. for an Earth-conscious yet fashion-forward music video to promote the campaign and promised 30-percent discounts to anyone who participated, Guardian writer Lucy Siegle crunched the real numbers.
First of all, giving people discounts to buy more clothes to replace the ones they don’t want is not sustainable. It’s capitalism cloaked in “consciousness.” Additionally, 1,000 tons of collected unwanted clothing may seem like a lot, and it is, but Siegle’s math shows H&M churns out that much clothing in just 48 hours.
And really, what could they actually do with all of those unwanted clothes? “Using publicly available figures and average clothing weights, it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up to 1,000 tons of fashion waste,” Siegle says. But don’t worry about H&M, because only a small percentage can even be recycled in the first place. We can only guess what they did with the rest. (Likely landfills.)
If you’re over a size 12 and you’ve tried to shop in an H&M store, I don’t have to tell you that the large majority of your options are confined to accessories. It was so exciting to see plus-size supermodel Ashley Graham repping their new Studio line in August, until plus customers realized they could only buy those sizes online. H&M blamed limited available rack space, but all I heard was “We want your money, we just don’t want to see you.” Got it.
It’s almost poetic at this point that the more you dig into the fast fashion retailer’s do-gooder sentiments, the more superficial they become. It’s like a metaphor for the disposability of their products. One has to wonder though, when they’re putting all of these great, feel-good ads and initiatives together, does anyone at H&M stop to think about when they should start practicing what they preach? I, for one, will leave space on my own rack for the brand that does.