Fashion giant and CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson said last week that consumer shaming of fast fashion “will have terrible social consequences.” The push for sustainability in fashion has seen a dramatic decrease in sales, hitting H&M hard last year. Persson, whose net worth is $1.9 billion, said in an interview with Bloomberg that a decrease in consumption “may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences.”
That’s rich, coming from a $2.5 trillion industry responsible for 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentally-friendly innovation in the fashion world has been too slow to keep up with the growing demand for sustainability. The main concerns of the movement are pollution and the exploitation of laborers in developing countries. It’s no surprise that “fast fashion,” cheap garments destined for the trash after a few uses, has been the first to be impacted by the sustainability movement.
What are these terrible social consequences Persson speaks of? He claims that by reducing consumption, boycotting fast fashion has had a negative impact on the creation of jobs, healthcare, and “all the things that come with economic growth.” So does that mean H&M is making efforts to improve jobs and healthcare for its laborers? Not exactly.
In 2018, multiple reports were published describing gender-based violence in H&M factories in Cambodia, India, and Sri Lanka. According to the U.S. Director of Global Labor Justice, Jennifer Rosenbaum, “H&M’s fast fashion supply chain model creates unreasonable production targets and underbid contracts, resulting in women working unpaid overtime and working under extreme pressure.”
To be clear, Persson isn’t saying that sustainability is bad. He just thinks that the way it affects his company’s profits is bad. He says, “The climate issue is incredibly important. It’s a huge threat and we all need to take it seriously – politicians, companies, individuals. At the same time, the elimination of poverty is a goal that’s at least as important.” It may be unclear whose poverty he is referring to.
Persson has been CEO at H&M for ten years and is the third generation of his family to run the company. His net worth used to be $3 billion, but now he is only worth a shocking $1.9 billion. These statements may be a plea to eliminate his potential poverty, which he seems to think is at least as important as the global environment. These statements expose problematic attitudes from one of the largest global companies.
H&M has come under fire for other reasons in recent years. In 2018, the company made headlines for an advertisement featuring a black child wearing a sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle.” They apologized. In 2015, H&M South Africa was criticized for featuring so few black models in their ads. The company responded with an equally cringey statement that didn’t improve the situation. A 2013 controversy around their feathered headdress accessories, part of the annual summer festival line, sparked claims of cultural appropriation and offense to indigenous peoples. They apologized again. The same year, a factory collapse in Bangladesh resulted in over 1,100 deaths, but the company did not make any significant efforts to improve working conditions for its laborers.
These statements come on the heels of H&M’s release of its new collaboration line with high fashion designer Giambattista Valli, with an affordable average price point of $175.00. Eradication of whose poverty?