H&M is the second largest clothing retailer in the world and has become the main supplier of fast-fashion at a breakneck discount. The first store was established in Vasteras, Sweden in 1947 under the name “Hennes”, meaning “Hers” in Swedish. H&M now stands tall in 61 countries with over 3,700 locations and a worth of an estimated $12 – 16 billion.
The appearance of an H&M store, and most retail stores, is fairly neat and carefully put together to fit your convenience and visual delight. When you find something you like, you remove it from the rack and take it with you into the dressing room, where a kind young employee will guide you to the nearest available stall. When you are done with your cloths, they are handed back to the young employee and are tossed onto a pile of inside out jeans and t shirts in a cluttered room in the back of the fitting area, also given up on by their potential buyers. If you stick around long enough you will spot the very same shirt you tried on being returned to its rightful spot from whence you chose it. And from that image is born a fresh glimpse of a place that was once seen as a neat, professional and tidy place. The sparkle and superior glow of the place has faded. All clothing on the racks are seen previously discarded, worn by just about any character you can think of, folded, re tagged and put back on the rack for the next hopeful customer.
The average H&M customer is a young professional, looking to spice up their wardrobe, hoping their colleagues won’t notice that their new sport jacket was purchased at a discount price of just over twenty dollars. The clothing is high end, comfortable and distributed at a very attractive price, but once thoroughly scrubbed, dried and tried on for a second look, it becomes tattered and un wearable.
It should go unnoted that the H&M brand presents its economic state through the way it dresses its customers: it’s very nice and well put together at first glance, but after some time of closer examination it is much less…
You get what you pay for, and the same goes for the labour force manufacturing these materials. The minimum wage these workers are paid based out of Cambodia is estimated to be the equivalent of $66.00 a month, an amount brought forth by multiple human rights groups, stating it doesn’t amount to even half of the income required for basic needs. H&M’s global head of sustainability stated that they will be aiming to pay their textile workers a “living wage” by the year 2018.
It is always great news to hear that a brand, with a worth between $12 – 16 billion dollars, will be taking these steps to ensure the basic rights of their workers, but the backside of this statement cannot be ignored; by releasing this statement, H&M confirmed they have been paying their workers an unlivable wage for the 68 years it has been running.
An incident that occurred in August 2011 at the Cambodian factory caused nearly 200 workers to pass out within just one week; the causes were pointed to toxic chemical fumes, malnutrition, poorly built ventilation systems and “mass hysteria” for the worker’s illnesses. The international Labour Organisation has blamed these incidents primarily on poor nutrition provided by employers to their workers. H&M conducted an investigation and were hesitant on providing a specific cause to their workers illnesses. A documentary was released soon prior to the incidents that revealed the horrific conditions these workers were put through that premiered on Swedish national television. It gave consumers a glimpse of the harsh reality of the lives behind the high end, low priced fashion trend they were taking part in at H&M stores.
In 2014, H&M was accused of lack of “cultural appropriation” after releasing a new jumpsuit that closely resembled the uniform worn by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). YPG is an armed wing of male/female soldiers of the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party). The group fights to protect Kurdish inhabited areas from the invasion of Syrian Civil War, including Kobani, located near the Syrian – Turkish border. The release of the jumpsuit caused uproar among the YPG fighters, who deemed it “disrespectful” and “disgraceful” across many social media platforms that were the cause of an international controversy that led to an apology by H&M for the resemblance.
Though the apology was accepted by all communities, cultural appropriation still stands as a recurring issue in fashion and many cultures continue to be insulted due to the careless process going into the design of new products every year.
In January of 2012, Tori LaConsay was taken by surprise when one of her designs, a “love letter” dedicated to her home in East Atlanta was stolen by H&M, who featured the exact design on their home decor items without permission, credit or compensation to the artist. LaConsay was at first shut down by the leading fashion retailer but had earned wide support over a range of social media platforms, protesting her rights as an artist, threatening to boycott H&M completely. This led to a pleasing victory for LaConsay who came to a settlement of $3000 that was used to pay for her friend’s dog’s surgery. What remained of the settlement was donated to charity. LaConsay was pleased with the settlement, stating it “respectfully honors the true intent behind the original artwork, offering a message of love, compassion and community.”
It will go by no surprise that H&M is also widely criticized for the immoral technique used for the disposing of unused products. The homeless community has been reported sifting through tall piles of clear trash bags dumped behind the facilities, containing unsold products that were found ripped to shreds to ensure they would never be worn or sold by another human or retailer. This particular incident was reported at the back side of H&M’s New York outlets, during one of its coldest winters and in the midst of a deep recession causing a rising unemployment population and homelessness. It was a revelation for the people of New York as the fashion giant was caught in the dead of night tearing its goods to shreds.
“Sorry H&M, but until you find a better way to dispose of unsold clothing, I don’t really want anything to do with you.” – An anonymous New Yorker commented.
Scanning the internet for sources, there is far too many to choose from while stumbling upon the countless errors committed by this massive retailer. As H&M struggles to meet the demands of human rights activists and labour laws, its controversy rages on. Mistakes will continue to be made and protests will follow, but when the brand is tattered and taken to the back to be cleaned out, you can stick around and watch as it is returned to its place, fresh and correct.
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