As an eco fashionista, it has been exciting to see H&M finally devote some design and marketing muscle to this year’s Conscious Collection, unlike the last couple years, where it really seemed an afterthought, and impossible to find in store. I’ve seen the pretty Vanessa Paradis ads in magazines, and on TV, and every store I’ve been to has displayed the collection front and center! And some of the styles are actually cute. You can see my favorite picks in the slideshow below.
The question is how conscious is this collection? The materials are definitely sustainable- organic cotton, recycled polyester, etc. In fact, H&M is the world’s number one user of organic cotton! That is fantastic! BUT environmental sustainability is only one half of the sustainable coin. Social sustainability is critical. But since we cannot evaluate the supply chain, one has to wonder who made these clothes, under what conditions, and how much were they paid?
The quality and prices for these pieces are so dirt cheap that they scream sweatshop. How is a conscious eco-fashionista to know what she is supporting? H&M’s Code of Conduct forbids child labor under 15, and ensures workers are paid a relevant minimum wage. Garment workers in Bangladesh get paid an average of $37 a MONTH. Is that sustainability?
With the horrific tragedy in Bangladesh last Wednesday, where over 360+ garment workers- mostly women- were crushed to death in a collapsed building because of cheap construction, we have to demand these kind of answers. People are still trapped, some still being pulled from the rubble. The news faded quickly- they’re only third world garment workers right? Not like a building full of Europeans or Americans. That would be front page news for quite a bit longer. Personally, I can’t stop thinking about those people, that they died so brutally working to create cheap clothes for Joe Fresh, JC Penney, Walmart, and Mango. Fast fashion is cheap because the brands are negotiating rock-bottom labor, and that in turn means factories made of cheap, shoddy construction, and sweatshop wages.
H&M claims that they monitor their Code of Conduct by performing regular audits at supplier factories, but the factories in the collapsed building in Bangladesh also complied with other brands’ monitoring groups. Obviously, the structural soundness of buildings, and fire escapes need to be integral to all brands’ monitoring mechanisms. What a cop out to not inspect the most fundamental aspect! How do we know H&M checks their suppliers’ factories for structural soundness?
In fact what we do know is that in 2011, a proposal to upgrade factories in Bangladesh, and give an independent monitoring body the power to shut down unsafe factories was rejected by numerous big brands, including H&M, Gap, Walmart- they didn’t want to pay, or be liable. H&M believes factories and local government should take on the responsibility. That is ludicrous wishful thinking. These corporations are raking in mind-boggling profits, meanwhile local governments and local business in a developing country like Bangladesh do not have the budgets to invest in clean water and waste management, nevermind upgrading factories.
It’s great big brands like H&M are pushing forward on eco fashion, but let’s ask them to truly lead on social sustainability. The lack of transparency in the fashion industry can only be elucidated by consumer demand. We have to speak out and ask- what kind of factories are these clothes being made at? How thoroughly is the safety of the workers being inspected? Enough is enough. Eco fashion has to be socially sustainable, fair trade, AND sweatshop-free, not just eco-friendly.