What's Wrong with the H&M Design Award and the Entities that Support it?

H&M recently made headlines when it named the winner of its Design Award, an annual design competition for students at select design schools around the world. With the aim of "bringing up the most promising talents in fashion and giving them a springboard in their careers," the H&M Design Award is undeniably worthwhile in terms of fostering young design talent.

However, it is inadequate to consider this initiative without context – namely, H&M’s history of exploiting those responsible for manufacturing its garments and accessories. Moreover, it is irresponsible for the fashion industry – and a handful of its most esteemed publications and influencers – to triumph this initiative (and ones like it) without shedding light on the gross injustices associated with fast fashion, practices championed by H&M.

Central Saint Martins graduate Richard Quinn, this year's Award recipient, is a promising young designer, and this article is in no way meant to detract from his very merited honor. Instead, it is a call to acknowledge that in opting to spotlight the efforts of young designers (particularly Quinn, who was praised by H&M and the Award's jury for his sustainable and ethical approach to pattern and print making), H&M is proving to be a worryingly hypocritical company.

It seems that this competition, with its strong "sustainability" undertones – paired with H&M's dubious Conscious Collection – is little more than yet another attempt at greenwashing courtesy of H&M. For the unfamiliar, greenwashing is the promotion of allegedly positive environmental initiatives, without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of fast fashion) in a significant manner. This often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims.

H&M’s pushing of the “sustainability” angle in this year’s competition – including H&M creative advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson’s spiel about how sustainability is a “huge priority” for the brand, citing the Conscious Collection – seems tedious at best, more an attempt to placate a consumer base that aims to be more environmentally conscious than a move to break ground in terms of implementing a truly sustainable supply chain. This is especially true if we consider the latest flurry of news about the retailer – the single largest manufacturer of garments on the market – concerning the extremely damning manufacturing practices observed in its supplier factories.

Just last week, the Guardian uncovered the gaping inadequacies in garment factories in Bangladesh, some of which house H&M suppliers. This summer, H&M made headlines for employing children as young as 14 in factories in Myanmar where they worked more than 12 hours per day in unfavorable conditions. And before that, the fast fashion retailer came under fire for failing to make essential improvements in its factories over three years after signing the Bangladesh Accord, in which it vowed to do so following the deaths of upward of 1,100 garments workers.

As we have stated in the past and continue to demonstrate, fostering young design talent is imperative; it is something undoubtedly worth investing in. However, it should not necessarily be the top priority, especially for a brand as massive as H&M, when human rights abuses have not been eradicated from its production cycle. Working to more meaningfully and effectively remedy the unsafe working conditions found in H&M’s supply chain – as indicated by a consistent slew of reports from the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and Human Rights Watch, among others – should be prioritized. Providing a young designer with money and mentoring is simply just not as important as providing young women with safe places to earn a living and voice grievances regarding workplaces abuses – although the former is much easier and inexpensive to accomplish.

Certainly these efforts – bolstering young designers, leading recycling initiatives, and ensuring that garments manufacturers are not subject to gross abuses – can be accomplished simultaneously. And yet, most fast fashion companies continue to focus on the former, while neglecting the latter. It seems that many fast fashion companies’ (including H&M’s) non-supply chain initiatives serve more as attempts to distract consumers from their more egregious issues. As opposed to being truly honorable efforts, they are largely aimed at establishing an outward facing brand ethos of sustainable practices (as evidenced by the promulgation of massive PR campaigns that surround such initiatives), which enables these companies to delay the implementation of safer, more truly sustainable fashion manufacturing.

Yet, these same companies have thus far failed to demonstrate significant strides in improving sustainability and working conditions. And this is not surprising, as if significant adjustments were made (such as increased wages, improvements to the working conditions and safety aspects of garment factories, etc.), they would directly and dramatically impact the bottom line for fast fashion retailers; their $20 jeans are cheap for a reason. 

In fact, working conditions efforts are given significantly less “air time” than other easier-to-accomplish initiatives. Instead, such companies write off such efforts, citing "the complexity of the supply chains as an excuse for having no control over paying a living wage but brands have so much leverage with governments and suppliers, and they have the power to set prices," says Anannya Bhattacharjee, a coordinator with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a supply chain lobby group that has consistently found vast inconsistencies between H&M’s purported message and its actual practices.

According to a May 2016 study from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, “H&M’s PR rings hollow to workers who are struggling every day to feed their families. A sustainability model that is put forth and wholly controlled by H&M but is not founded on genuine respect for organized workers and trade unions on the ground is never going to result in real change for H&M production workers. Instead, it serves as a public relations facade to cover up systemic abuse.”

In short: Next time you see a massive PR campaign about a fast fashion brand’s wonderful efforts – whether it is an eco-collection or a competition to promote a young designer –  be sure to think twice. Such efforts, while glowing when considered in isolation may not be as wonderful as they seem if you consider the bigger picture of fast fashion and its wide range of abuses. It is worth noting, after all, that H&M’s sustainability manager is the brand’s former public relations head, which is certainly a nod to the near-perfect packaging – manipulation, even – of the brand’s sustainability efforts.

THE ROLE OF FASHION INFLUENCERS & PUBLICATIONS

With that in mind, what about the entities – namely, the mainstream fashion publications and a handful of big-name influencers (Google them!) – that support the H&M Design Award and others like it, as well as the myriad of other H&M-fronted initiatives whether it be the company's designer collabs and its holiday films or its 'Breakthrough Fashion Blogger of the Year' challenge?

On paper, it makes a lot of sense. H&M and other fast fashion retailers serve as lucrative advertising partners. While luxury brands are suffering in the current economic climate, retailers like H&M, Zara and co. are thriving, and so are their marketing efforts. As such, it makes sense for publications and influencers to partner with these retailers. But is it the ethical thing to do?

As we have told you in the past, the vast majority of fashion websites contribute to the problem – albeit indirectly – by praising H&M’s Design Award and its Conscious Collection while largely failing to detail the reality of the situation. Until fast fashion is revamped entirely, “sustainability” is simply not a word that can be used with any significant accuracy – or integrity.

In an article from January 2013, we stated: “Aside from doing our part to reduce the pain and suffering of others (namely, women and children working in the garment industry in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other far-flung locations) and try to minimize our consumption, for the sake of the planet, it seems pretty reasonable to suggest that in addition to suggesting change of the general public, editors, bloggers, and major fashion websites, alike consider moving away from the daily praise and promotion of fast fashion retailers and the individuals who continually profit enormously from it.”

It seems irresponsible – even given the business-focused nature of the fashion industry and the websites and influencers associated with it – to continue to promote the workings of the companies responsible for continued human rights, environmental, and intellectual property abuses, some of the issues with which fast fashion is so heavily tied. Moreover, it seems irresponsible for publications and influencers – especially those that boast major readerships/followings – to take such one-sided stances in connection with these issues in exchange for advertising revenues and lucrative partnership deals.

While consumers have much less power to alter the cycle of worker abuses than the multi-million dollar corporations that directly partake in such practices, we must still be consistently cognizant (and as publications, educate those who are not in the know in this respect) that there is more at stake here than clothing that is trendy and cheap (Note: H&M offered $3 deals on Black Friday).

As the Rana Plaza tragedy of April 2013 (which resulted in the deaths of 1,129 garment workers) and recent fires in garment factories in India, China, and Bangladesh have demonstrated, the lives of garments workers – which are simply not being valued in the current system – are central to this issue. It is time more publications and influencers use their positions of influence to demand positive changes from companies like H&M or at least withhold the context-less gushing praise.