H&M Conscious, “World Recycle Week”, and Greenwashing

You may or may not have heard that H&M Conscious has declared April 18-24th to be “World Recycle Week”, urging it’s customers to bring in bags of unwanted clothes that they plan to recycle and turn into raw materials and new products. Though still very hypocritical as it’s coming from a giant fast fashion retailer, this might not have been so bad had it not “coincidentally” also been the same week of the Fashion Revolution campaign, a week that aims to bring attention to the true cost of fashion and help exploited garment workers, something H&M has been criticized for. If you haven’t yet read Lucy Siegle’s opinion piece on the topic for The Guardian, you really need to. Too lazy to? Bookmark it for another day, and here’s a quick summary of what you need to know:

  • H&M is aiming to collect 1,000 tons of clothing during their “World Recycle Week”.
  • It would take 12 years for H&M to use up this much fashion waste.
  • This 1,000 tons of clothes is roughly the same amount a retailer of their size would make in 48 hours – so really, 12 years from now they will have completed recycling what they produce in 2 days.
  • They’re offering vouchers, which promotes more consumerism.

Fashion Revolution Week | The Curious Button

Fashion Revolution responded to this by calling on everyone to celebrate the true heroes – you can read more about that here. H&M responded with a very carefully-worded message about how they did not intend to distract attention away from Fashion Revolution (I say that’s a lie) and would choose another week if they were to do this again next year (they better, or a lot of people are going to be really pissed).

For those of you who want to give H&M the benefit of the doubt and think maybe they really did just not know that on April 24th of last year, tens of thousands of people participated in Fashion Revolution Day (it was upgraded to a whole week this year due to the overwhelming response and participation in 2015), then I have another little piece of information for you. This isn’t the first time an H&M campaign has collided with Fashion Revolution. In 2015, the H&M Conscious print campaign and film push featuring Olivia Wilde began the week leading up to Fashion Revolution Day. I mean, how many timing “coincidences” can H&M claim before things get a little fishy?

On top of what others have pointed out in various articles about this clash, I wanted to touch on something I think isn’t discussed often enough in these conversations – how is it that a company that made over 2 billion in sales (you can view their full Annual Report for 2015 here) is unable to offer fair living wages to their garment workers? Regardless of the exact numbers its clear that if you can afford to plan opening over 400 stores within the next year, then you can probably offer better pay and make some real, tangible changes to help the exploited workers at the end of your supply chain.

Fashion Revolution Week Statistics | The Curious Button

H&M is using something called the Fair Wage Method, which begins with interviews with workers and management to identify what a “living wage” really is. In an interview with Ecouterre, H&M’s Anna Gedda talks about the challenges they face with this process and gives insight into why it takes so much time. It’s understandable, but at the same time, why not offer to pay for a slight raise in wages while you conduct all the surveys, interviews and analyze the data? Their goal is to change these wages in 2018, but that’s still a long way off, and lot can change by then. I have no doubt that they can spare fraction of their profits to make a difference until they finish having “dialogues” and figure out a long-term solution.

I’m not trying to bash on H&M here. While their effort can be admired, it’s still hard to believe that it stems from genuine concern for sustainability when their overall business model, which aims for continuous growth and expansion, completely goes against any kind of sustainable model. To anyone who has even a slim understanding of what sustainability in the fashion industry means, this “Word Recycle Week” just looks like, as Lucy Siegle puts it, a bunch of “corporate greenwashing”.

So if you really do have a lot of clothes and you want to donate it to H&M’s Recycle Week, go ahead. But if you do that, at least take a moment to reflect on the unsafe working conditions and low wages of the garment workers who made your clothes. Take a moment to browse the Fashion Revolution website and understand that a $20 dress for you comes at the expense of someone getting paid $3 a day to make it.

Fashion Revolution Week Statistics | The Curious Button

I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty, but to empower you. By asking #whomademyclothes, we can demand that the fashion industry is more transparent and honest about the fabrication of their clothing. The more we learn about it, the easier we can avoid falling for other cases of greenwashing. So please, don’t let yourself be fooled. If you want to participate in a real cause next week, let it be Fashion Revolution Week. As Gandhi said, “there is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”

What are your thoughts on the H&M Conscious World Recycle Week and it’s clash with Fashion Revolution Week? Let me know in the comments below!

H&M, World Recycle Week, + Greenwashing | The Curious Button

 

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  • Hey Elena,

    Perhaps I my tone in the comment was uncaring, because I’m by no means saying “it’s not the worst job they can have.” It’s a horrible job. The commute can be fatal, employees are exposed to dangerous chemicals, and there are mass faintings from poorly-ventilated rooms.

    I don’t understand why we shouldn’t look at the macroeconomic implications of raising wages for 500,000 people. The only good thing about working in a factory is the wages, which have almost doubled since I first moved here 4 years ago. Factories have created mass exoduses of young people from their home villages, causing their parents to sell their land (once used for subsistence agriculture) to — you guessed it — factory developers for considerably less than its worth (~$1 per square meter). This is currently happening in my mother’s home village, Takeo.

    IIt’s absolutely necessary to look at the macro-economic implications of raising the wages for 500,000 people who live in the same neighborhoods as people who don’t benefit from a national minimum. It’s already been widely reported in national newspapers that landlords near the factories increase rent prices when factory wages are increased, not only negating the raise, but pricing out poorer families. There are rent control laws to keep this from happening, but no oversight to ensure landlords abide by them.

    Focusing on just factory workers while ignoring everyone else has detrimental implications. It affects workforce competition between factories, hospitality, labor, agriculture, service, and nonprofit. We must also factor in traditional familial structures and how wages are spread through an entire extended family, not just for a nuclear family like we have in the West.

    I think, ultimately, you and I agree on an end game. H&M and its ilk can afford necessary social services, or pay local NGOs to provide these services to factory workers. Everlane did it the past two Black Fridays, and even Cards Against Humanity paid their factory’s capacity so the workers could have a week off.

    My point is simply raising wages or advocating to raise wages without considering the wider implications among non-factory workers can be detrimental to the entire country.

    • Yes, I definitely understand where you’re coming from. Perhaps my post wasn’t written as clearly as I had hoped! I try to advocate not just for raised wages, but for safer conditions, job security, etc. and I feel that the best way the average person can help is simply by putting pressure on these larger retail brands to take more action rather than “greenwash” their way out of it. If all of us demand more change, and refuse to buy from them until that change is implemented, they will have no choice but to start making real changes.
      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond, I truly do appreciate it! There is always more to be learned.

  • I think H&M’s recycle week is BS that does nothing to reverse the sheer amount of “stuff” that comes out of their stores. That’s that.

    Now, I need to address this point: “why not offer to pay for a slight raise in wages while you conduct all the surveys, interviews and analyze the data?”

    I can only speak for Cambodia (I’ve lived in Cambodia for four years), and there’s a dangerously false assumption that garment workers are the poorest of the poor in Cambodia. In reality, it’s the highest paid unskilled, entry level position in the country. In fact, it’s the only industry that has a national minimum wage. In 2013, workers were demanding their wages be doubled. It’s important to not think about a wage increase on an individual basis, but on the scale of half a million people who work in the garment industry. When there’s a sudden injection of foreign funds into one demographic, it creates hyper-inflation (we saw this in 1993 during the U.N. occupation and foreign aid money), as well as a huge wealth gap. To try and avoid this, the government compromised to raise wages by $10 every year for the next 5 years.

    It’s easy to look at the situation as “just give them more money,” but it would seriously cause economic mayhem, especially among the countries poorest communities (mostly agriculture and the rural service industries). It has already increased the price of goods, services, and housing in neighborhoods near the factories, shutting out non-factory workers from those markets completely.

    Really, we need to be focusing on strengthening unions to better advocate for basic social services so people can have job security, health care, education and advancement, and social housing — things that require sweeping government legislation and oversight for factory owners. The wage debate is almost like a red herring, distracting people from the real problems that can’t and won’t be solved by paying people more money.

    • Hi Tavie, thank you for your thoughts! While I see your points, I don’t think that the excuse of “it’s not the worst job they could have” can justify the exploitation of the workers, and I still don’t think we should use economics as an excuse to keep low wages that don’t cover basic needs. My point isn’t that we should “just give them more money”, but rather than if large companies like H&M truly cared about their workers, they are certainly not restricted by finances and can be doing much more than they currently are. It’s definitely a complicated issue that cannot be solved without working on the unions and social services you mentioned as well, but we should still pressure large brands to get them to put genuine effort into solving these issues. I believe it needs to be a collaborative effort from both sides.