H&M Advocates Transparency…Really?

h&m conscious exclusive

H&M released its supplier list just days after the launch of its “sustainable” Conscious Exclusive collection.

Swedish fashion giant H&M released its 11th Sustainability Report last Thursday, which included a list of its global suppliers. The list accounts for 95% of the order volume for all its brands, which are H&M, Cos, Weekday, Monki, Cheap Monday and & Other Stories. The label claims to have done this in order to “take another step in making our industry more transparent and ultimately more sustainable.” But is that what they are truly doing?

H&M claims to have published this list in order to create clearer communication along the supply chain, which is laudable indeed, and a huge step towards inspiring industry-wide transparency. The company says that due to its established and strategic bonds with suppliers, it is not concerned about releasing information on factory names and locations. The reason for previously keeping supplier lists private was the risk of competition trying to use the same factories for the best available production capacity. Alongside promoting transparency, the company also wants this publication to  “incentivize our suppliers to take ownership over their sustainability and recognize the progress they are making.”

Taking a look at the supplier list reveals that H&M works with a total of 785 different suppliers, which subcontract a total 1,798 factories for garment and accessories manufacturing. Of these factories 760 are located in the Far East, 499 in Southern Asia, and 539 in the EMEA. While H&M’s 2012 Sustainability Report demonstrated that the company has noticed several of the issues omnipresent in many of its suppliers’ the factories, it didn’t seem to offer up a realistic and responsible solution for issues such as overtime hours, living wages, workers basic rights, chemical handling or concrete plans for re-usable energy sources.

Hopefully the list has been published in a genuine attempt to foster true transparency within the industry, and to to collaborate with governments, human rights organizations and suppliers on pressing issues within the supply chain. Although H&M has actively worked on training factory workers and managers about workers rights, a large percentage still earn far less than what is considered a sustaining wage. The current minimum wage for a factory worker in Cambodia (where H&M’s suppliers have 33 factories) is 75 USD per month, and the calculated basic, monthly living expenses for a Cambodian worker and her family is about four times as much at 274 USD. In 2011, over 2400 Cambodian factory workers passed out in factories as a direct consequence of insufficient wages, mostly because they couldn’t afford to properly feed themselves. As far as the number of workers in H&M’s supplier factories who actually know how their wages have been calculated goes, percentages have fallen since 2010 in Bangladesh and practically slumped in Turkey, although they have slightly risen in China and India.

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M says, “our customers should feel confident that everything they buy from H&M is designed, manufactured and handled with responsibility for people and the environment.” Really? How can that be possible when the company itself has not assured a fair living wage to many of the individuals involved in manufacturing? The response of Helena Helmersson, Head of H&M’s Sustainability Team is: “We buy garments from suppliers. Hence, we don’t pay the wages to the factory workers.” How does that type of statement foster transparency? If the processes that make up the value chain of H&M’s products aren’t entirely understood by the company itself, how can it possibly claim to ensure customers of the sustaianiblity or ethicality of these products?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to see this supplier list. The company’s mission to “use our scale to bring about systemic change to our industry and across our entire value chain” can have an amazing impact on the fashion and textile industries. They are working towards this change through sourcing of organic cotton and Better Cotton, water use reduction, banning certain toxics, clothing recycling schemes and by investing in poverty reduction charities. But we really need to see a lot more integral changes happen before their claims of transparency and being “at the forefront of sustainability” can be held true. H&M’s revenue (or turnover) in 2012 reached a massive 17 billion Euros, and their profit topped the 2 million Euro mark. This money is not being fed back into the system that makes it, and the means for obtaining it is costing human lives, the environment and our conscience. As Niels Oskam, founder of Rank-a-Brand says, “The turnover of H&M grows year after year, planet earth does not.” Neither does human tolerance for starvation, 16 hour working days, and miserable living conditions.

Image: H&M Conscious Exclusive Collection