Swedish retail giant H&M may be moving on to another continent to meet its growing worldwide presence. This expansion is occurring instead of addressing the deep issues within the fashion supply chain and making dramatic changes to prevent incidents like the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. The African continent—Ethiopia specifically—is reportedly the next victim of the fast fashion mogul’s low-cost production cycle–but can H&M turn the tide and approach the situation less problematically in this country?
A spokeswoman for H&M recently told press officials that the company has already placed test orders with Ethiopian suppliers. Satisfactory results from the test orders indicate that large-scale production will begin sometime this fall, with suppliers providing the company with up to 1 million garments per month. H&M is constantly expanding its number of retail stores worldwide, meaning that continuous expansion of production, the ‘fast’ behind the fast fashion moniker, is also necessary. While Bangladesh is still the most used country for apparel production by H&M, less controversial options are becoming more attractive.
The choice to opt for production in Ethiopia is not merely for appearances’ sake, since production in Africa means lower shipping costs, tax breaks from the government and shorter lead times. Production is also cheaper in Ethiopia than in China, where costs are constantly rising. H&M claims that lower production costs aren’t the key driver behind its choice to take on Ethiopia, but rather the possibility of finding suppliers that satisfy capacity and quality and can meet conduct rules and safety regulations.
The Ethiopian textile industry has been in existence since 1939 (when the country was occupied), and has plans to revitalize itself over the next few years. Foreign investors with the financial ability to modernize machines and factories are part of the plan, which aims to move the country from a primarily agricultural economy to an industrial one. Economists believe that foreign investment and industrial boosts could lead to infrastructure development and better living conditions for Ethiopians. But will labor rights organizations and supposed stricter regulations on the part of labels like H&M prevent Ethiopia from becoming the new Bangladesh?
Related on EcoSalon: