Is H&M Really the World’s Most Ethical Company?

Yeah right.


When I read the headline I thought it must have been a repost from The Onion: “H&M Named World’s Most Ethical Company.”

I sat at my computer for a few minutes in a hazy fog of confusion and disbelief while a running list of H&M’s fashion malpractices ran through my mind.

The award was given by the Ethisphere Institute, an independent research group that promotes “best practices in corporate ethics and governance.” Companies are rated on five key categories: ethics and compliance, reputation, leadership and innovation, governance, corporate citizenship and responsibility, and culture of ethics.

But here’s the kicker: nowhere does the ranking consider manufacturing or labor practices — which in the world of fashion (and humanity) has everything to do with ethics.

H&M manufactures about 25 percent of its clothing in factories in Bangladesh where the minimum wage is 38 dollars per month, the lowest in the world. It also gets its clothing from Cambodia, where the minimum wage is about 61 dollars per month. The garment factories in both of these countries are known for having substandard working conditions — the biggest indication being the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over 1,100 people last year.

In November, H&M made a public statement saying it plans to deliver a “living wage” to more than 850,000 textile workers by 2018. 2018? That’s four years from now.

While that should be enough of an argument to revoke the award, there’s the issue of fast fashion: “a contemporary term used by fashion retailers to express trends designed and manufactured quickly and cheaply to allow the mainstream consumer to take advantage of current clothing styles at a lower price.”

H&M epitomizes fast fashion. In fact, the company practically invented it, producing an estimated 550 million garments every year. With their current trend-cycle boasting 52 seasons per year, it doesn’t take an ethics course to question where all of that clothing ends up after the next weekly trend debuts.

With the average American throwing away over 68 pounds of textiles per year, there is nothing ethical about encouraging an unsustainable rate of consumption.

It’s alarming when these types of “studies” are published and read by consumers as fact. It’s misleading, misrepresented and misinformed — and gives shoppers the false sense of security that they can continue buying 5 dollar t-shirts at H&M, wear them once, and throw them away.

While H&M is one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton and has begun to implement recycled fabrics into its repertoire, there is no amount of “Conscious Collections” that can make up for the human rights and environmental damage already done.

(And for the record: The Gap, and its refusal to sign an agreement designed to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh’s garment factories, doesn’t deserve the award either.)


Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an accelerator program that gives independent makers the resources to start sustainable businesses in the USA. Shannon got her start in 2010 when she co-founded {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company for female travelers and minimalists that was featured in The New York Times, Forbes.com, TheWallStreetJournal.com and Yahoo! News. Shannon has appeared as a speaker at the World Education Congress, ECO Fashion Week, SXSW, and as a guest lecturer at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Applications for Factory45 are now open until April 28, 2014.

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