What Does Ethical Fashion Really Look Like? H&M’s Recycling Campaign is Raising Eyebrows.


On April 11, M.I.A. will premiere a new music video, exclusively for H&M, in anticipation of World Recycle Week, which takes place from April 18 to April 24. During this week, H&M aims to collect at least 1,000 tons of recycled clothing. The retailer is encouraging shoppers to bring in their clothing to be recycled by offering a coupon 30 percent off of a future purchase in their stores.

The event is part of H&M’s ongoing recycling efforts, which the brand first spearheaded in 2013. Since then, customers have brought in 25,000 tons of clothing to be recycled. “That’s right – haul videos are so last season, rehaul is the new new,” reads a recent release from H&M.

The irony of a company that essentially makes disposable clothing but also encourages recycling is not lost on many activists. As fast fashion retailers continue to expand across the United States and clothing seems to keep getting cheaper and cheaper, environmentalists have raised concerns. Every year, Americans send approximately 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills. The fact that we purchase 5 times as much clothing as we did 30 years ago is a major contributor to this. While recycling clothing helps, reducing the amount of clothing that we purchase and subsequently dispose of is also important.

“H&M’s recycling efforts are extremely commendable if we consider them in a vacuum without any larger sense of context as to who the retailer is and the practices upon which its business model is based,” Julie Zerbo, the New York City–based founder and editor of Fashion Law Blog tells TakePart.

Then there’s also the other elephant in the room — H&M’s labor record, particularly when it comes to the safety of its factory workers. In 2010, a fire at an H&M factory in Bangladesh resulted in the death of 21 employees. According to reports, the factory was found to have unsatisfactory levels of fire preparedness including a lack of fire exits and extinguishers. H&M claimed that representatives from the company had visited the factory some months earlier and found no “serious fire safety problems.” In a follow-up statement, the retailer outlined its efforts to promote fire safety at the Bangladesh factory.

Fire safety is a major issue in Bangladeshi garment factories. Poor electrical installations and bad maintenance often create significant fire hazards. In order to make a safe workplace the norm throughout the sector, we think that it is essential to involve all stakeholders such as the government, industry organisations, trade unions and other brands.

In 2013, the shocking death of over 1100 people at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh also spurred H&M to ramp up its safety efforts. While H&M was not one of the companies contracted with the factories at Rana Plaza, it pledged, alongside other major retailers, to work for safer conditions for factory workers. H&M also joined Mango and Primark in contributing $21.5 million to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund. Despite the fast fashion mecca’s apparent efforts, human rights activists continue to take issue with H&M’s safety record. Last year, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network, and Worker Rights Consortium released a report evaluating the results of H&M’s fire safety intiatives. The report concluded that factory conditions in Bangladesh were still unsatisfactory.

H&M, like many other brands, assured the public in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse that it would take the steps necessary to ensure the safety of the workers in Bangladesh who sew its clothes. Based on the Accord’s public disclosure of remediation progress, we must conclude that H&M has failed to honor those commitments. As the largest apparel buyer from Bangladesh, the first signatory to the Accord, and a company that touts itself as a leader in social responsibility, H&M should instead be leading the way in ensuring its suppliers become safe, in accordance with the schedules established by the Accord – before there is another Garib & Garib, Tazreen Fashions or Rana Plaza.

The fight for fire safety continues. Earlier this year, in February, a fire at a factory for H&M and JC Penney resulted in 4 workers being injured. The lack of deaths in this instance was attributed not to increased fire safety, but to the fact that the majority of the factory workers hadn’t arrived for work yet. If the had fire started just one hour later, “the factory would have been filled with more than 6,000 workers, and the risk of death would have been extreme,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said in a statement.

It’s easy to understand why some might be doubting H&M’s sincerity when it comes to ethical fashion, but fans of M.I.A. are also questioning her decision to partner with the company — especially when her politics are taken into consideration.

The reality is H&M’s business model depends on consumption and disposal, and no amount of campaigns or music videos is going to change that. Regardless of how a consumer might feel about ethical fashion and fast fashion, it’s important to remember that as customers, we actually have a lot of power in this debate.