H&M’s Conscious Actions report. H&M want to provide fashion for conscious customers, as opposed to ones in a coma.
The situation is probably the same in a lot of places, but in London at the moment, you can’t really walk a block without seeing roughly 18,000 H&M Conscious Collection ad posters. My eyeballs almost exploded with the centrifugal force due to the speed and frequency at which they rolled. Luckily I have tough eyeballs, mainly from rolling them so much. But I’m a skeptic, not a cynic, so I gave H&M a chance: I went on their website to find out more about the Conscious Collection and the company’s efforts to be more environmentally and ethically aware.
Obviously, I didn’t realise I was signing myself up for reading a 95-page PDF of H&M’s collective “conscious” efforts, the Conscious Actions Sustainability Report 2012. That’s almost a hundred pages of H&M trying to bowl you over with repetitive information (seriously, the number of different ways they managed to phrase the fact that 148 partners produce 53% of H&M’s products…) and dazzle you with as many pretty graphs as humanly possible before Adobe Illustrator can’t bear it anymore and dies from exhaustion.
Anyway, here is an assortment of my thoughts, because there’s no way I can think of to approach this massively unwieldy document in a systematic way. I suppose this is an exercise in critical thinking more than anything, to demonstrate that it’s necessary to approach this kind of information critically – your approach could easily make a difference to the message you take away.
• The PDF contained a lot of information, both useful and not so useful, about all the efforts H&M is making to be more “conscious”. They clearly have made a fair amount of effort to try to address some problems, and a lot of their efforts are admirable and probably far above the efforts made by a lot of other brands. But my general impression from reading the document was that in a lot of respects they don’t seem to be committed in much of a practical, quantifiable way – there’s a distinct lack of clearly defined goals and deadlines (made all the more apparent because a few of their initiatives do have distinct goals and deadlines). I got a bit sick of the weasel-worded sentiments of being committed to change, to valuing improvement, to having a vision of a sustainable business. Having a vision doesn’t necessarily translate to practical change. I’m sure there are people in H&M management who really do care about improving the company’s practices, but the changes that need to be made are largely ones that would require a total restructuring of the company’s business model. The cost of the necessary changes means that the issues are unlikely to ever be seriously and comprehensively addressed – not while there are shareholders who want increasing returns on their investments.
• Looking at the data presented, less than half of H&M’s supplier factories are in compliance with requirements for young workers. They don’t actually describe what that means, so I had to look it up in a different document. Apparently “requirements for young workers” means that workers under the age of 18 are working under legal conditions. So even though H&M supplier factories are 100% compliant with not using child labour, there are still plenty of people under the age of 18 who are working under illegal conditions. While it’s great that H&M is making efforts to improve this, it should never at any point been accepted as part of their production line. (Or as they seem intent on calling it in a weirdly euphemistic way, the “value chain”.).
• Other data say that 72% of supplier factories are compliant with chemical handling requirements. That means that almost 30% of factories could be exposing any number of their employees to dangerous chemical handling practices. That could translate to potentially thousands of people being unnecessarily exposed to chemicals so other people in the world can have some cheap clothes. That doesn’t really seem, you know, ethical. But phrasing this information in terms of percentages, rather than the actual number of people who are affected, certainly is a way of downplaying what is kind of a horrifying statistic.
• Something that I found kind of lol-worthy was the report’s effort to emphasise the fact that 62% of supplier factory workers are female, like this is some sort of triumph for gender equality. There are reasons why so many women end up having to work in garment factories, and it is generally not because they’re so incredibly empowered and liberated.
• Overtime was identified as a problem. Keep in mind, this sort of “overtime” is not racking up a few extra hours per week – Lucy Siegle’s examples have been more like working multiple consecutive 20-hour shifts to meet deadlines (although the overtime problem that H&M identifies could cover a huge range of overtime durations and patterns). Anyway, although H&M identified this as a problem, I think they did some backflips to try to displace the responsibility for this issue – it’s because of inefficiency, they say; and it’s because workers want to work more so they can get more income, etc. However, I would argue that reducing overtime significantly is to a large extent incompatible with H&M’s business model. If you want fast turn around on huge numbers of garments so that you can keep up with micro-trends and you can re-stock popular items ASAP when they sell out, you are putting the onus on the manufacturers to get a huge amount of work done as fast as possible. H&M does acknowledge that “overtime remains a core issue in our industry” but to me that sounds a little bit like some more blame-dispersion – it’s the whole industry, man! You can’t blame just us when the entire industry is like this!
• A big deal is also made about H&M’s efforts to improve fire safety, which is obviously a critical issue given the number of factory fire-related deaths. The results they’ve reported really just highlight again the problem with the whole system in general – H&M’s manufacturing needs are enormous and are outsourced to hundreds of factories that aren’t owned by H&M and that have no guarantee of adequate safety precautions and facilities. H&M audits identified poor-quality materials, poor maintenance and lack of proper electrician training as problems in the factories. Their suggested solution? Stricter legislation and more inspections. Maybe I’m just being dumb when I think that maybe H&M, the company with the billion dollar profits, could foot the bill for installing safe electrical systems in the factories they choose to involve in their production lines. Government legislation might help in the future, more inspections might improve things a bit, but neither of those things puts quality electrical wiring in factories in the first place. H&M seems to think they’ve done a great job, though, because 109,400 of their workers have received fire safety training – a pretty low-cost thing to do, since it could just mean staging some seminars or showing some videos. Hopefully it will save lives, if people know more about what to do in the event of a fire, but I’m not sure it’s going to solve the problem. Plenty of workers can probably identify potentially dangerous situations, but that’s not going to prevent the dangerous situations from arising in a system that emphasises cost reduction.
• I was interested to find that despite the huge energy costs of manufacturing products, apparently the greatest amount of energy used by H&M is in running their actual stores. They have a nice goal of aiming to reduce electricity use in their stores by 20% per square metre by 2020 (relative to a 2007 baseline). Well, that sounds good until you consider the fact that H&M are planning on open 325 new stores in the 2012/2013 financial year alone (ref). I think it would be safe to assume that if you open hundreds of new stores every year, there will be a net increase in energy usage by the company, despite these efforts to decrease electricity use per square metre. Not really helping the environment, per se, but at least it’ll cut down their electricity bill.
Anyway, I think that’s enough for now. I could go into a lot more, but it’s all pretty much in the same vein – efforts are being made, but if you think about it, so many of the problems will probably persist because they’re simply consequences of the business model that needs incredibly high-volume production for incredibly low prices and at incredibly fast speeds. It’s simply a model that does more damage than it needs to, just because apparently someone somewhere really needs tops for £1.99?
(Disclaimer: as always, there are people whose financial situations are such that they really do need clothing prices to be as low as possible in order for them to be able to clothe themselves and their families, but that is not the primary group of people contributing to H&M’s massive profits.)
Overall, it appears that the entire point of H&M’s Conscious document is to convey the fact that the company is making efforts to change and to improve their practices. I mean, it is genuinely good that they are making efforts to implement change. However, most of the problems arise from the fast turn-around and cheap costs demanded by the fast fashion business model. The problems that have come about are often part and parcel of that business model, but should never have been allowed to be – dangerous and illegal working conditions and environmentally irresponsible production processes should never have been allowed to happen in the first place, so the efforts to reduce these hardly seem worthy of congratulation and aren’t necessarily indicative of a company that genuinely wants to minimise its negative impact. To use a random analogy, if you burn a bunch of people’s houses down, you shouldn’t really expect to be praised for making efforts to try to burn fewer houses down.