Response to Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M

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On October 28th, 2019, H&M boss Karl-Johan Persson was interviewed by Bloomberg and made a series of statements which appear to justify the fast fashion business model on ethical grounds. In the interview, Persson warns of the risks of ‘terrible social consequences’ if fast fashion is not upheld. Unsurprisingly his statements have drawn widespread censure. Labour Behind The Label for instance lambasted his claims about the ‘social consequences’ for workers in low labour cost countries, highlighting instead poverty wages and poor working conditions within many factories producing fast fashion for brands including H&M. UCRF also finds Persson’s statements unconscionable.

Firstly, Persson’s statements are not unique. They are typical for proponents of a so-called ‘new environmentalism’ based on an ideology of green growth. In this view, rather than being the cause of resource depletion, pollution effects and worker abuses; industrial activity and economic growth are prescribed as the ‘solutions’ to these impacts. This type of have-it-all environmentalism, achieved through market forces and satisfying growing consumer yearnings, is wholly incompatible with the reality of biophysical planetary limits. Persson suggests that workers would suffer under ‘de-growth’ or ‘don’t buy’ conditions. The reality is that the business model Persson promotes, which is utterly dependent upon extracting, processing and wasting natural resources at increasingly greater volumes, would suffer. It is a physically untenable model that will eventually undermine itself, as exemplified by the recent demise of the brand Forever 21.

Secondly, Persson’s statements are cynical and perpetuate environmental injustice. As environmental degradation accelerates, the same people whose cheap labour and long working hours Persson profits from, will be the victims of climate change and associated problems long before the business leaders. Likewise the ecological habitats affected by environmental degradation are concentrated in countries which bear the heavy impact of industrial pollution. The biospheres and local communities in cheap labour countries are typically not safeguarded by either environmental or labour-laws Persson takes for granted when applied to his own employees, family and country. In fact, it would be illegal to produce the goods he does within his home biosphere and country – even though it is not illegal to import said goods. 

UCRF seeks to further problematize the association between low-cost fashion goods and ‘social consequences’. Fast fashion perpetuates and creates new forms of elitism and divisions including between groups of consumers, where the poorer population is blamed for un-environmental shopping behaviour while an elite, despite being able to afford to make environmentally better choices, escapes the same level of criticism. Yet Persson’s hypocrisy is not uncommon, as fast fashion brands and consumers are regularly targeted and perhaps receive a disproportionate level of condemnation in the current crisis. High levels of in- and out-flow through walk-in closets are deeply problematic, in whichever population they appear. 

UCRF wishes to emphasize that a single-handed focus on ‘slow’ fashion (as opposed to fast fashion) will not solve the social problems amplified by consumerism, labour exploitation and resource extraction. In neoliberal consumer societies, the act of consumption is one of the few creative outlets with room for aspiration and dreaming available to the working poor, and fast fashion is one of these outlets. As systemic de-growth must take place, it must be proportionate, so there is room for the weakest to have access to a fair share of resources and partake in meaningful activities. A discourse focussed on frugality, preached from the top, hits the poorest unevenly, starving and excluding them from leisure culture and the fruits of their hard labor. It is the case however that the current model of a brand like H&M offers few to no avenues for people with less means to engage in aspirational dreaming beyond the mere act of acquiring cheap and unsustainable goods. 

UCRF supports visions for wider systemic change, a fashion system that both employs people in well paying jobs and restores the environment, while also making user-engagements with fashion more than about acquiring more goods. This new vision sees the fashion industry as a hive of activity, it’s just that the activities themselves are different, and the user’s engagement with fashion more sensorially rich and meaningful. If Persson is serious about his concern for ‘terrible social consequences’, he should stand up and be a leader for business models that allow workers to keep and thrive on work that contributes to creating healthy living conditions, prosperous communities and meaningful engagements with fashion. UCRF calls upon H&M to take on this challenge and looks forward to seeing Persson put his resources to work towards such a goal.


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