Last week, I wrote about wedding gowns. Now it’s time to think of the other end of the fashion price spectrum: fast fashion. The Observer had an interesting piece on Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M and what they report in their annual sustainability report (Is H&M the new home of ethical fashion?, Apr 7). The report is notable because the Swedes have apparently set the goal for themselves of being “the ethical solution, the retailer that can make ethics and fast fashion synonymous.” So how is that going?
“I don’t think guarantee is the right word,” says Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability, brightly. “A lot of people ask for guarantees: ‘Can you guarantee labour conditions? Can you guarantee zero chemicals?’ Of course we cannot when we’re such a huge company operating in very challenging conditions. What I can say is that we do the very best we can with a lot of resources and a clear direction of what we’re supposed to do. We’re working really hard.”
I believe her. Thursday’s report will show some impressive sustainable figures: for example nearly 2.5 million pairs of shoes were made last year using lower-impact water-based solvents; all building contractors have signed a code of conduct to ensure “good” working conditions; recycled polyester equivalent to 9.2 million plastic bottles has been used, and H&M uses more organic cotton in production than any other group. This year I am told, 7.6% of its cotton was organic (an industry insider estimates H&M’s overall cotton use to be around 200,000 tonnes a year). By 2020 100% will be sustainably sourced cotton. …
Does Helmersson still wake up worried they’ll be the subject of a sweated labour expose? “Yes, I worry about that sometimes. I lived in Dhaka for two years. You see how things happen down the chain in a country like Bangladesh. Remember that H&M does not own any factories itself. We are to some extent dependent on the suppliers — it is impossible to be in full control.”
And therein lies the rub. While H&M talks about responsibility, in the supply chain where retailers devolve power to factories it can be easy to distance yourself. Helmersson says H&M has invested in 100 people in CSR, 75 of whom are auditors (assessing social and now some environmental conditions in factories) and produced a series of groundbreaking short films, including one on fire safety that it claims more than 400,000 garment workers have seen.
This is an interesting problem. There is truly a limit to what a buyer can control in a supplier’s plants. That doesn’t mean that a buyer can just wash its proverbial hands of the problem (see Apple and Foxconn). But a bunch of questions then follow from this. For example, what is the right level of investment in monitoring? Having 75 auditors on staff sounds like a fairly significant investment in people but it is hard to appraise that number without knowing how many suppliers they are charged with monitoring over how many countries.
Another question is to what extent this limits H&M’s operational flexibility going forward. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to do the right thing; they have still have to be conscious of cost to compete. That would suggest that once they identify a supplier that is compliant with their labor standards etc there should be some stickiness in switching suppliers. Saving a krona per unit may not be worthwhile if it means having to qualify a new supplier. So unless a high level of compliance becomes the norm across the industry (or H&M’s standards are pathetically low), they may be hemmed in their ability to work with new suppliers. There is something comparable with how Patagonia has worked with Wal-Mart. Patagonia may be giving up some secrets but it would stand to gain if Wal-Mart could raise the general level of the supply base.
A final point that is touched on in the article is whether ethical fast fashion is just an oxymoron. A business that is predicated on the rapid turnover of its product line (and hence on the rapid turnover of its customers’ wardrobes) is inherently going to be wasteful. Effectively encouraging customers to stop wearing a sweater not because it is worn out but because it now the wrong color or style can’t help but create a large carbon footprint.
There is, of course, a question of what is the cart and what is the horse. H&M could change its business model and push basic items that can be used over a long time frame, but I am not sure that will keep teenagers from wanting new and hip clothing. Given that teens demand fashion, there is something to be said for seriously thinking about how they can be served better.