H&M has been hoodwinked by its own sustainability mandate

H&M store
CC BY 1.0 William Murphy

Sorry, H&M, but buying more stuff won't save the world.

Karl-Johan Persson wants you to keep shopping. The CEO of fast fashion retailer H&M stated in a sponsored post for The Guardian that reducing consumption would create a social catastrophe:

“A lot of discussions are only on the environmental side, that we don’t need a lot of things really and that we could consume less of everything. But if we were to decrease 10% to 20% of everything we don’t need, the result on the social and economic side would be catastrophic, including a lot of lost jobs and poverty.”

Persson’s argument doesn’t make sense to me. Consumers should just keep buying stuff they don’t need in order to prop up an industry that’s already notorious for its human rights abuses and dangerous working conditions for fear that it might get worse than that? Sorry, but I don’t buy that logic.

H&M appears to care about creating a more sustainable business model, or at least it is more vocal than other fast fashion retailers. It has a ‘Conscious Collection’ made of organic and ethically sourced textiles (although why it’s limited to a specific collection and not expanded to everything the company makes, I don’t know); a used garment collection service; and an ultimately zero-waste, closed-loop production model as its proclaimed goal. The company is researching technology to turn more used garments into new ones. (Shall I introduce him to my grandma? She’s really good at that.)

All of this sounds good, but it misses the point. Fast fashion companies like H&M are at the root of the problem that Persson is trying to fix with Band-Aid solutions. These companies have created a throwaway fashion model that, in many ways, perpetuates the dire poverty that he claims to want to avoid by maintaining current levels of consumption.

Garment workers are among the poorest laborers in the world. They work in dangerous, poorly constructed factories, expected to churn out a huge volume of clothes in impossibly short turnaround times at the cheapest possible price. Many are exposed to horribly toxic dyes and chemicals, and are unable to earn anything more than a pathetically small minimal wage because their own governments are afraid of becoming uncompetitive in the global garment industry.

Sarah Ditty wrote a response to the Guardian article on behalf of Fashion Revolution, a UK-based organization dedicated to getting consumers to ask how our clothes are made:

“Why is the ‘fast fashion’ model so sacrosanct? It’s the ‘quick-fix buy’ way of producing and consuming fashion that has led to the industry’s widespread social, environmental and creative exploitation. Through relentless, million dollar marketing, big brands and retailers have managed to convince the world that faster, cheaper, mass consumption products are somehow democratizing fashion.”

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: fast fashion can never be sustainable, no matter what companies say. Whether Persson likes it or not, we live on a planet with finite resources. As Ditty points out, millions of tons of clothes get dumped in landfills every year, and Africa is swamped with unwanted charity-shop clothes that are destroying local textile markets. Continuing and/or increasing consumption, even if it’s in so-called ‘sustainable’ ways, is not a responsible long-term solution for dealing with global poverty – and that poverty is only going to get worse from the environmental havoc wreaked by damaging industries such as garment-making.

I’m suspicious of Persson’s claim that this is about the poor factory workers. More likely his capitalistic call to keep shopping has more to do with the 400 new H&M stores slated for opening in 2015.

The only solution is a combination of buying better, buying less, and making it last. Vote with your dollars by supporting the few garment companies that actually care about their workers and have not lost sight of their humanity in the midst of making profits.

H&M has been hoodwinked by its own sustainability mandate
Sorry, H&M, but buying more stuff won't save the world.

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