Welcome to the rant wheel! (Lovett or Leave It podcast listeners, welcome!) I recently read an article that H&M is now using wine waste to create their leather products
Cool. I guess?
There are a lot of companies bragging about their newfound desire to be more sustainable, and I am on board for it. But I think there is something so telling about the fashion industry, when multiple news sources consider this a “win”. H&M is one of the largest fast fashion companies in the world. They don’t pay their Retail workers and garment workers a living wage, either here in the US in store or overseas.
I can’t help but think that this new race to be more sustainable is nothing more than a marketing ploy designed by rich white men to trick a less informed consumer. How can you claim to be a sustainable brand when your sale section boasts $1 signs? The deep problem with this kind of marketing is that we often see companies with rose colored glasses. As Americans, we are raised to see wealth as a marker of success and intelligence and trust. (Ahem see our 2016 elections ahem) But at the end of the day, these large fast fashion companies claiming that they can be, or are working to be sustainable is ludicrous. If the company really wanted to take leaps and bounds in the ethical/sustainable fashion world, they would pay their 1000s of employees well, they would make sure the garment makers in their overseas factories were being paid a living wage, they would cut their product lines in half and only create pieces that would truly last. On 6 January 2010, it was reported that unsold or refunded clothing and other items in one New York City store were cut up before being discarded, presumably to prevent resale or use. How is anyone out there writing articles about this company becoming more sustainable when cutting up clothes has happened in the last 10 years? Does the fashion industry really think we are that naive?
As I was reading through the article, I was struck to see an interview with Vogue made its way into this new article about wine leather. “In 2020 and beyond, we need to take the concept of circularity to another level," says H&M sustainability manager Pascal Brun in an interview with Vogue. "It's the only way to think about our goals for natural resources." This quote really irks me. The fact that they have a sustainability manager to me is laughable, when you could likely put the money H&M is paying him directly into the pockets of garment workers / children that are harmed and underpaid daily. (And don’t get me started on Vogue giving companies like this a platform). They also claim that they have made a goal of maintaining 100% recyclable and sustainable sourced materials on all their products by 2030. This company makes about 27 billion dollars per year, and you are telling me it’s going to take 10 years for them to figure this out? No. They, like many other larger corporations care much more about their bottomline and their shareholders (which happen to mostly be white men) than they do about the environment, or the people they employ.
In all of the articles I read, I never read anything about their treatment of garment workers, their mass over production of clothing, or their insane yearly profits that should fund these changes being made so much faster. In August 2011, nearly 200 workers passed out in one week at a Cambodian factory supplying H&M. Fumes from chemicals, poor ventilation, malnutrition and even "mass hysteria" have all been blamed for making workers ill, not to mention the minimum wage in Cambodia is the equivalent of just $66 per month, which isn't even half that required to meet basic needs. And even as upsetting as these facts are, it does in fact get worse. On 2 January 2013, The Ecologist reported allegations by Anti-Slavery International that H&M is continuing its association with the Uzbek government in exploiting child and adult forced labour as cotton harvesters in Uzbekistan. Also in February 2017, The Guardian reported children were employed to make H&M products in Myanmar and were paid as little as 13p (about 15cents US) an hour – half the full legal minimum wage. And at the end of the day, how are we supposed to have a real conversation about ethical and sustainable fashion when people are writing glowing articles about one of the largest companies contributing to fast fashion, child/employee endangerment and garment waste on a global scale?
I know that this article started because of the companies new use of wine leather and I just want to be clear that I think companies working to use materials that are made from waste is good. But it doesn’t solve the larger problems with this company, and seems like a bandage that doesn’t address the issues that many people have with the H&M. I also want to note that there is nothing within the articles that tell us if these new materials have a petroleum finish, which in the end would make this new development a bit of a mute point. Petroleum cannot be recycled and will not break down if left in a landfill or the ocean.
I hope that we all take a bit more time to be informed about where our products are coming from and how they are made. I am NOT perfect. I have bought things from H&M in the last 12 months. This year I am taking my pledge to not purchase fast fashion more seriously. But at the end of the day, if you buy clothes from H&M this year, that doesn’t make you the bad guy. The bag guy is sitting in a floor to ceiling office in NYC, fully aware what his company does to the people that work for it.