Response to CEO of H&M on Guardian article ‘reducing consumption will create a social catastrophe’

by Sarah Ditty 2 years ago
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Fashion Revolution responds to the article in The Guardian last week
by Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of H&M

Read the full article in the Guardian here

Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of H&M, was right when he told the Guardian last week that there are no easy answers when trying to balance environmental, social and economic risks and opportunities in a complex global society.

One does have to commend H&M for helping to thrust social and environmental issues into public view. In the world of corporate ‘fast fashion,’ H&M is certainly leading the way in looking for sustainable solutions. The retailer is putting significant effort and money into sourcing ‘sustainable’ cotton, increasing living wages for some of its garment workers, encouraging its customers to recycle unwanted clothing, and developing new innovative ways to re-use materials.

But is it really about more than the bottom line, as Persson says? He told the Guardian that, “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.”

Firstly, where do these facts come from? Where’s his evidence that proves if we all start buying less cheap stuff, people will definitely lose their jobs and slide into destitution?

This is an age-old fundamental concept of capitalist economics. But c’mon, in the today’s real world, the global picture is more complex than the simple theory of aggregate demand.

Secondly, the Scott Trust (who owns the Guardian) holds the value that ‘the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard’.

Finally and most importantly, Persson’s public message is very dangerous. His view is one that reduces our collective role to ‘consumers’ rather than active participants in everyday society with agency and voice. It demands a system in which people are just ‘consumers’ with virtually no other purpose than to buy stuff. And to keep on buying, more of it, forever.

It implies that we as consumers, as human beings, have no power to change the way that fashion is made and sold. This is simply not true. We vote with our dollars every time we buy something, and Persson is telling us to keep on voting for a broken system.

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.

While H&M is commendably investing in ‘the circular economy’ and pioneering closed loop processes that could have profound impacts on the environmental side, this is not a panacea that will suddenly fix all the problems that persist in fashion’s supply chains.

What about the people side? Regardless of how revolutionary the materials are, garment workers in many of the world’s poorest countries will remain stuck in the ‘fast fashion’ cycle where they persistently work very long hours to deliver big volume orders with impossibly short turnaround times, constructed at the cheapest price possible, in often life-threatening conditions.

This also begs to ask a much bigger question: why is the ‘fast fashion’ model so sacrosanct? After all, it’s the ‘quick-fix buy’ way of producing and consuming fashion that has led to the industry’s widespread social, environmental and creative exploitation. And through relentless, million dollar marketing, big brands and retailers have managed to convince the world that faster, cheaper, mass consumption products are somehow democratising fashion. In this sense, democracy means we can have countless £5 shirts we wear once and throw away at the expense of garment workers in far away countries who have effectively no other option than to take on low-paid jobs in precarious situations to feed the world’s shopping habits. This is neither democratic nor inevitable.

If it’s true that Millennials are buying less or, at least, are more discerning shoppers than previous generations, as the Intelligence Group 2014 study reports, big fashion companies need to decide whether they’re going to further the problem or be part of the solution.

Why won’t these big global fashion companies plough their investments into re-visioning the bottom line and how scale can be achieved in fundamentally alternative ways? It’s high time to think about innovating how fashion operates at the very foundational level. It’s time to think about the true and whole cost of the fast, cheap fashion model rather than only seeking out solutions, which address part of the picture but ultimately, prolong this problematic way of working.

The human side needs to be put at the very heart of true long-term sustainability because that’s what fashion’s problem really is. We’ve lost the humanity. The public’s role is not just as consumers and the people who make clothes are not only workers. We’re all humans, and we’re all part of the same fabric.

The way forward for the industry should not be about buying more, it should be about buying better. It should also be about encouraging honest, open, transparent ways of working so that together producers, brands and consumers can learn from failings and tragic mistakes (Rana Plaza being only one of many) and reach the common goal of a more sustainable industry overall.

This is why nearly two years ago, thousands of people in more than 60 countries got together to turn the fashion industry inside out. We’re called Fashion Revolution and we’re working towards a future where fashion is an industry that values the environment, people, profit and creativity in equal measure. Meanwhile, the H&M view remains business as usual, just a bit better.

Fashion Revolution is showing the world that consumers are not as complacent as we’re made out to be. Consumers want and deserve to know who makes our clothes and how, so that no one is unintentionally aiding and abetting dubious practices and contributing to a future that is bad for people and planet.

We believe the first step in the journey towards this future for fashion is by opening up the conversation. H&M publishes a list of some of the factories they work with on their website, and this is a really great start. But we’d like to hear more from H&M (and other brands) about who makes their clothes. Come 24th April 2015, Persson and his team should be prepared to answer this pivotal question.

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