Last week, Carl Jakob Haupt and David Kurt Karl Roth, the duo behind German fashion site, Dandy Diary, posted a video that purportedly showed the workings of an Indian garment factory, one not terribly unlike the factories that were involved in the production of the Alexander Wang for H&M collection. It has since come to light that none of the Wang x H&M wares were produced in India, but instead, in China, Turkey and Italy. H&M has released a statement, saying that none of the garments and accessories from the collection were made in India and that the company "does not accept child labour." Now it appears that we are all quite happy to "know" that children did not make the Wang logo-covered garments and accessories. But the thing is: We don't actually know that at all.
What we are all, yet again, missing is the point, as we did when the Primark tag scandal occurred (remember when a consumer reportedly found a tag inside one of her Primark garments that read: "Forced to work exhausting hours"). When we learned that the instance was a hoax, we very quickly put the story to bed. We stopped thinking. We didn't consider that while that one instance was, in fact, a hoax or a PR stunt or whatever you prefer to call it, similar conditions are happening in connection with the manufacturing of garments.
Just last week we learned that a handful of textile mills in the Tamil Nadu area of India have been accused of employing forced labor and have been linked to major fast fashion giants including H&M, Primark and C&A (an international Dutch chain of fashion retail clothing stores). The factories in that case were forcing young women, some as young as 15, to work in “appalling, prison-like conditions.” The week before, we learned that severe safety violations still run rampant in Bangladesh garment factories. And before that, in a span of two months in 2013, you may recall that a factory in Cambodia collapsed injuring garment factory workers and the Rana Plaza tragedy happened, in which nearly 1,200 individuals were killed, the vast majority of whom were working in garments factories.
It seems this is exactly what Haupt and Roth aimed to address: The widespread abuses that exist in connection with the manufacturing of garments. What we are missing here is that the duo never said, "This is an actual factory that manufactured the Alexander Wang for H&M collection." Instead, what they said was that this video was made in an actual garment factory that is very much like all of the other factories in India, where fast fashion garments are made. They were using the high profile H&M and Alexander Wang collaboration as an attention-grabber because, believe it or not, examining the inner workings of the international garment trade, complete with its rampant human rights abuses, is just not that interesting for most people. In fact, most people would rather read about Kim K and Kanye or Kate Middleton or the 10 ways to wear white for fall. As such, Haupt and Roth tied their study to the launch of the H&M collab.
However, while most publications are quickly dismissing this video because of the Wang vs. not Wang distinction, we think the distinction makes the message that Haupt and Roth are sharing even more significant. If we take H&M's word for it, we can assume that the Wang collection was not made by children or in human rights-violating conditions. BUT we must keep in mind that the Wang collection, which retailed at prices significantly higher than the average H&M garment or accessory, is a special occasion, so to speak. Because it commanded prices higher than the average, more could be spent on manufacturing. Thus, the manufacturing of this collection is not typical for H&M or other fast fashion retailers. This is important to note.
We spoke with the boys behind Dandy Diary exclusively about their goal in making the short film, to which they said:
Our video was a good way to make people think about this topic again, to start discussions. This perfectly worked out within this very short time the video was online. [It has since been removed from YouTube by H&M's legal order]. We are very happy and satisfied how it turned out and also about the reactions of media and people. H&M represents just one part of this very big fast fashion industry of which we are all part of when working in fashion - and also we do not have a clean slate. But we don’t think that one needs to have this pure white vest to deal with the subject of child labor and poor working conditions in general. We wanted to produce a short film in order to raise people's awareness.
H&M has also released a statement. A spokesman for Swedish fast fashion giant said the following in connection with the Dandy Diary project:
The video in question is fake. The factory is not an H&M supplier. The Alexander Wang for H&M collection has been produced in China, Turkey and Italy only and not in India. The labels used for this collection are entirely black and not black on white as shown in the video. H&M does not accept child labour.
The fast fashion giant's statement is woefully inadequate. Yes, it is a relief that the Wang collection was not made in the factory shown in the video and that the children shown in the video were not working on the Wang collection. It is nice to know that H&M demonstrates this by identifying how its labels differ from those depicted in the video. Moreover, while it is nice to know that the Wang collection was not made in India, the truth is, H&M does manufacture in India. Just because it did not manufacture this collection in India, does not mean many, many other garments are not being produced there. In fact, Uniqlo, Forever 21, Zara, Nasty Gal, GAP, Old Navy, and Marks & Spencer, among others, manufacture a significant portion of their garments and accessories in India, with more companies increasingly relying on suppliers there, as well. So, the fact that this particular collection was not made in India does not say much in terms of the bigger picture. (And while we are speaking of tags, let's remember than H&M tags were found in the wreckage of Rana Plaza).
As for child labor, I have no doubt that H&M does not accept child labor. I find it extremely unlikely that the company employs children in its retail stores or in its headquarters. These are the hiring decisions over which H&M has control. Having said this, H&M does not produce any garments or accessories in house. It outsources its production to approximately 800 factories. It is a well known concept in fashion and beyond that in terms of compliance with health, safety, and human rights regulations, supply chains prove the most difficult to monitor. They are difficult to track to ensure compliance for a number of reasons, but primarily because they are located in far-off destinations like India, Cambodia, Vietnam or Bangladesh (not exactly next door to the H&M headquarters in Sweden or the Forever 21 and Nasty Gal head offices in Los Angeles). Moreover, any given brand employs a huge array of suppliers, thereby, making it difficult to ensure that each one is doing its part aside from merely making the Cushnie et Ochs copies the retailer ordered. Lastly, carefully monitoring these suppliers is expensive, and expenses, my friends, do not allow retailers to sell jeans for $30. As such, I'm not sure H&M can really say with certainty that none of its suppliers employers child laborers. It can, however, say it doesn't accept child laborers because most people will not inquire or think about what this statement actually means or how it is not an answer that actually speaks to the issue.
So, while it is very easy to label the Dandy Diary video a fake and go back to our daily, weekly, monthly shopping trips at fast fashion retailers because we like $30 jeans, I think this warrants a bit more attention and discussion before we label it as yesterday's news. Thoughts?