I remember when I first heard about H&M's Conscious Collection a couple of years back when it was just a fledgling line testing the waters. I specifically remember trying to decide whether or not I approved. It just reminded me of seeing the Fair Trade label starting to appear on Cadbury and Nestle chocolate bars- it just didn't feel right. Then I saw the Fair Trade label appearing on white tank tops in Tesco and that felt even less right. I suppose it's a trust issue- I just couldn't seem to equate a multinational corporation with the local values that ethical and Fair Trade fashion represent.
Before Christmas we saw whole hosts of activists 'fainting' outside H&M stores in a campaign to draw attention to the poor working conditions of labourers used in H&M's supply chain.
"Last year, over 2400 workers passed out in Cambodian factories due to malnutrition as a direct consequence of low salaries. But H&M, one of Cambodia's main buyers, continues to refuse to pay a living wage to its workers,”
says Jeroen Merk of the International Clean Clothes Campaign. H&M claim that as they do not own the workshops that create their clothes (they only place orders with them) they have no responsibility for them. If we look at H&M's website and sustainability report, they claim to be not only environmentally but socially ethical.
According to 'Labour Behind the Label', H&M "Accepts the principle of a living wage, but applies legal minimum/industry benchmark". They grade H&M level 1 on a scale of 0-5 measuring how well a company is doing in the task of aliviating poverty wages in its supply chain. To see Labour Behind the Labels's company profile for H&M and more detail on why they were awarded their grade, click here. The grading was given after a survey completed in the summer of 2011; so have H&M improved since then? A documentary was released in Sweden explaining how H&M is
not tackling social ethics in their supply chain in October 2012. To view the documentary, click here.
The documentary includes interview clips with H&M's CEO as well as their Head of Sustainability. These clips make for very interesting viewing as they highlight how uncomfortable these questions on the living wage make the high profile employees. According to the documentary, labour costs account for only 1-3% of a garments price so I struggle to understand why the living wage is not at the forefront of H&M's vision of sustainable fashion.
Maybe it's that H&M is just focusing on environmental issues? The Ethical Consumer has awarded H&M's Organic collection 7.5/20 and H&M's regular line 6.5/20 using categories of research including Animals, Environment, People, Politics and Sustainability. So when focusing on ethics as a wider issue than just living wages, H&M scores much higher, though clearly still not anywhere near 'ethical' fashion levels.
This tally's up with my thoughts on H&M's Conscious Collection- the line boasts of its organic cotton, tencel and recycled polyester which really focus's on H&M's commitment to environmentally ethical fashion. The launch of the collection will coincide with H&M's Conscious garment collection initiative which allows customers to bring in bags of unwanted clothing to be swapped for H&M vouchers. These unwanted garments will then be recycled. This initiative brings recycling to the forefront of the consumers mind- it encourages us all to think about recycling and our environmental impact a bit more when we shop.
It's this exposure to ethical awareness which really makes me want to find the good in H&M. Their Conscious Collection may not be 100% socially or environmentally ethical just yet, maybe not even 50%, but at least they are putting something out there. The bulk of fashionistas that walk in and out of H&M probably won't even be aware that there is such a thing as ethical fashion, because lets face it, it is still a niche, growing market. The fact that when they walk in mid-March to see this 'ethical' line has launched, it might make them question the ethical values of the rest of H&M's collection. It might encourage them to start to think about where their clothes come from.
And for those of us who are more aware of the impact of the garment industry, even though we can see that H&M isn't a forerunner in ethical fashion, if we buy their Conscious Collection, high sales and a larger demand might encourage the company to think about expanding the Conscious Collection values to the rest of their lines. Also, previews of this years collection are pretty darn fabulous so right now I think I'm leaning towards the pro-Conscious Collection team...but it's so tricky I'm just not sure. It's not expected to launch until March 25th so we have time to make up our minds. Clearly the H&M debate does not have a definitive answer, and there's so much more information on the subject out there, so I would really love to know what you all think and where you all stand. Comment below to let me know! : )
Links and articles related to the Conscious Collection:
Lucy Siegle 'Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion?' April 2012
Sarah Karmali 'Vanessa Paradis Named Face Of H&M Conscious Collection' January 2013
Labour Behind the Label- Articles with 'H&M' tag
H&M- About- Sustainabilty
Cold Facts Documentary about H&M
H&M under fire as Swedish television unearths Cambodian production scandal
H&M: Workers left homeless and unpaid after factory closes