Last month the sustainable fashion world exploded with indignation over comments from H&M's CEO Karl-Johann Persson. In a sponsored interview for the Guardian, he said, "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." It was tied to his announcement that they are in the process of pioneering a closed-loop system for recycling clothes.
This assertion did not go over well.
"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," sneered Tree Hugger.
"If you read between the lines, you’ll see that Persson’s message is a purely capitalist one, whereby its very nature is infinitely expansionary. But of course, we live on a planet of finite resources with millions of tonnes of textiles unceremoniously dumped into landfills the world over each year and unwanted charity shop clothing sent to Africa, decimating local markets and livelihoods," Fashion Revolution said in a smart response.
"With recent reports of workers literally working themselves to death to keep pace, shouldn’t the “at least the poor have a job” excuse, at some point, ring hollow?" Ecouterre added.
OK everyone, before we chase down Persson with a pitchfork and tie him to the stake with the former CEO of BP, let's remember what his job is. He's the CEO of a multinational corporation that employs, by H&M's own estimate, 132,000 people across the world. He's not the president of an NGO. And he has an personal stake in keeping those 132,000 people employed.
In fact, all of these articles spend at least a few sentences admitting that H&M has been a pioneer in sustainable fashion. It's the top buyer of organic cotton in the world, it has a worldwide clothing recycling program, it quickly signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety after the Rana Plaza Collapse, and throws its marketing dollars behind its yearly Conscious Collection, creating more buzz around sustainable fashion in one week than all the sustainable blogs combined do in a year.
But it seems that H&M, by actually trying, has only succeeded in making everyone hate them. That seems a bit unfair.
Hate the Game
The most important thing to remember is that Persson and H&M are working within the parameters that they were given: capitalist parameters. Even companies that are in the good graces of environmentalists are in the business of growing. They are selling more things, hiring more people, increasing profit margins, because in today's business world, you must consistently increase shareholder value every three months, or else you will be replaced with a CEO who does. It wasn't always this way, but that's the way it is now.
In fact, Persson pointed out this very fact, saying the reason why H&M is so focused on sustainability is that his family's controlling stake allows him an unusual amount of leeway to turn the company in that direction.
Meanwhile, while everyone in the sustainable world pounces on H&M, Forever21 over there is quietly doing their thing, churning out even cheaper, more environmentally degrading, and more exploitative clothing, smirking as they rake in the profits, which – as a privately owned company – mysteriously accrue to a few fabulously wealthy individuals.
With any luck, advocates, you can drive away people who care about ethical clothing from shopping at H&M. And then H&M will probably drive away the most price conscious when they raise their prices slightly to pay a living wage, and then nobody will shop at H&M, and Persson will join the Hall of Shame of CEOs who tried to do things differently and got smacked, along with the former CEO of Sears. And all companies will learn a valuable lesson: It doesn't pay to try to be sustainable.
Look, if you have the means to buy nothing but sustainable fashion (or you're cool with only shopping at thrift stores) then get on with your eco-friendly self. I know, there are definitely people out there who buy ten cheap sweaters instead of one, and believe me, I'm working on changing their minds. But there are people who cannot afford a Zady sweater, or a $30 organic t-shirt. They can barely afford food! It could be possible that they are racking up credit card debt following the siren call of disposable, uber-trendy fashion. More likely is that fast fashion offers them a way to dress with a little bit of dignity.
Hey, even I pop into H&M sometimes. I just can't bring myself to pay $150 for a white blouse, knowing what a sloppy eater I am.
But I think there is a better solution than sniping, and I know I'm not the only one. Recently in a Q&A by the Ethical Fashion Academy with sustainable fashion advocate Marieke Eyskoot, I asked whether she thought it was more important to support the H&M's of the world, or the small sustainable designers. "Both," she said. (And I'm paraphrasing from memory) "We can't do this with just one or the other. It has to come from both sides."
Let's Do This Instead
In my ideal world, consumers with little disposable income would shift their shopping from Forever 21 over to H&M, until they can afford to buy a $150 sweater, at which point they will upgrade to higher quality fashion. Ideally, people would shift their dollars away from things to experiences, services, and organic food, thus keeping the economy going but supporting more ethical businesses. Ideally, the U.S. would switch to measured Gross National Happiness instead of GDP. But Persson is right. If every single person in the world woke up tomorrow and decided to buy only beautiful, quality-made basics a few times a year, there would be a very, very painful transition period. All those people making and marketing and selling clothes aren't suddenly going to pick up jobs in solar panel installation and organic farming.
So if you really hate fast fashion with a fiery passion, stop yelling at H&M for a minute, and try these macro-level interventions instead:
- Support minimum wage legislation locally and federally, so that people who work at places like Walmart can actually afford something other than fast fashion for their entire wardrobe.
- Support and advocate for a labeling system for clothing, so that it's easier for consumers to find and choose ethically and sustainably made fashion.
- Support shifting tariffs from textiles made outside the U.S., to finished clothing made outside the U.S., so that the price of fast fashion made in Bangladesh comes closer to the price of fashion made here. (Right now, tariffs on imported textiles are a large reason why clothing manufactured here is so expensive.)
All these shifts would have the effect of making it easier and cheaper to buy ethically and sustainably made fashion, while making it less profitable for corporations to skimp on quality and labor standards. And I have faith that these changes would do for H&M and Forever21 what changes in the food system did for Chipotle and McDonald's: support the expansion of a corporation with high standards and advocacy, while eating into the profits of an exploitative corporation.
Hey, I just think we should be supportive of sincere efforts. Does that make me a bad environmentalist?