Prior to this year, it was was not a secret that the clothing industry had some shameful practices in its manufacturing, but the consumer’s desire for cheaper product, and the industry’s desire for bigger profits, kept its questionable methods below the radar for some time. When an 8 story building in Bangladesh, Ran Plaza, collapsed leaving 1,129 dead, the world took notice.
As news came out that the building had developed cracks and been declared unfit to use only the day before the disaster, the practices of garment manufacturing world wide came under greater scrutiny. A NY Times article by Vikas Bajaj from last May sums up the issues facing consumers who don’t want to support inhumane standards: most brands don’t offer information about where their products are made. Boycotting products made in specific countries can compound the problem by targeting the poorest workers in the world.
The idealistic answer that consumers should just ‘buy less’ isn’t one I see gaining a lot of traction. However, consumers can educate themselves, and as this series has highlighted, many companies with a message of social good are reaping huge benefits and growing rapidly as consumers embrace their message and products.
Many of the companies we’ve highlighted are young and just getting out of the gate. A few commenters have even questioned the sustainability of businesses like Sword & Plough. But social responsibility is not the purvey of smaller businesses; big corporations are sitting up and taking action.
Consumer Pressure Impacts One of the Big Guys
Only a few weeks after the tragedy in Bangladesh, H&M (the world’s 2nd largest clothing manufacturer) agreed to sign a binding agreement to work towards fire and building safety for its workers. This decision came after pressure via consumer signed petitions aimed at H&M, Walmart and Gap. After H&M signed on, other brands began to follow their lead.
On November 25th, at the Living Wage in International Supply Chains Conference, H & M’s Global Head of Sustainability announced that the corporation was committing to a ‘fair & living wage’ by 2018. The following quote is part of a news release by H&M:
It has always been our vision that all textile workers should be able to live on their wage. That is also stated in our Code of Conduct. We believe that the wage development, driven by for example governments in some countries, is taking too long, so we want to take further action and encourage the whole industry to follow.
This is a big statement from a big brand; it compelled us to take a look at H&M’s sustainability practices as a whole.
H&M’s Social Responsibility
The first page of H&M’s Social Responsibility web page makes no bones about their stated goals:’
OUR VISION IS THAT ALL BUSINESS OPERATIONS SHALL BE RUN IN A WAY THAT IS ECONOMICALLY, SOCIALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE
And the page is chalk full of information about how H&M is striving to be a good corporate citizen. Here’s a shortlist:
- Water Conscious Denim: the traditional technique of rinse-washing denim garments uses huge amounts of water. H&M has pioneered new, water saving techniques.
- Garment Donation: H&M donates directly to emergency relief efforts in times of disasters
- 50% of Board is Female
- Sustainable Cotton: H&M has a goal of more sustainable cotton by 2020
- Worker’s Rights in Bangladesh: H&M is using short films to train Bangladeshi workers on their rights
- All for Children: Together with UNICEF, H&M is working to protect the world’s poorest children
There is more on H&M’s website if you want to check it out.
H&M has actually developed a brand specific name for their social responsibility, H&M Conscious. On the page dedicated to this, H&M repeats their social good mission statement, and adds the following goals:
- Provide fashion for conscious customers
- Choose and reward responsible partners
- Be ethical
- Be climate smart
- Reduce, reuse, recycle
- Use natural resources responsibly
- Strengthen communities
They also talk about their goals as an “ongoing process that requires determination, passion and teamwork.” H&M makes every effort on their website to clarify that they take social responsibility seriously.
How Important is Social Responsibility
Last week’s Social Justice post sprung from an interesting discussion that occurred on my personal Facebook Wall when I received unexpected push back from some who thought that pure capitalism’s lowest cost/highest profits should be the goal of all businesses. They questioned whether business belongs in the arena of social good at all.
On the heels of that conversation I turned away from the small start ups I’d been focusing on and back to large corporations and their stance on sustainability and social good to consider how large business sees their role in social responsibility.
A few months ago I featured The Hershey Company, its sustainable cocoa goals and the incredible foundation it funds, The Milton Hershey School. Like Hershey’s, H&M is a giant in its industry. When a juggernaut like H&M makes such a big commitment to social responsibility, I can’t help but sense that major changes are in the making- social responsibility is not about small companies making expensive product with the understanding that the consumer is willing, and can afford, to pay.
Sustainability and social responsibility have become important to businesses because a) they are run by people, and people care about these issues, and b) their consumers have made it clear that they expect more from the companies they do business with. This is about the role that consumers expect business to play in our society.
It is still early days in the movement to change garment manufacturers and their practices, but we are closely watching as consumer pressure and leaders like H&M are transforming an industry known as of the biggest violators of fair pay and poor working conditions.
VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.
I recently spoke with some folks working in sustainability and increasingly there is a focus on finding companies incorporating sustainability into their efforts, showcasing them and educating the public about what is possible. Levi’s with their waterless denim and GE crowdsourcing sustainability ideas through Ecoimagination are two other examples of brands doing well by doing good. The benefit corporation that you have spoken about in a previous post may not become the corporation that defines all others but it will certainly become more predominant as sustainability moves towards center stage.
I refused to go to WalMart since KathiLee Gifford’s new clothing line came under fire because of the alleged child sweat shop labour to produce her product line : http://voices.yahoo.com/kathy-lee-gifford-controversy-wal-mart-8696791.html I’m not alone in this. The more people “know” about these types of practices the more they see they have a choice not to continue to contribute to these conditions. Companies are bearing more responsibility nowadays and it extends to the supply chain. I found this interesting statement back when the article was written in 2011: “Wal-Mart only has one competitive edge in these hard economic times; their prices are still low. If the economic situation in America was different, it is likely that many more Americans would shop elsewhere, and would rather spend a little more, than to support a company that endorses child labor and poor working conditions.”
hessiej I remember that incident, but I usually give brands time to correct their mistake IF indeed it was ignorance.
As I watch giant companies like H&M work to fix the apparel industry, I think the Walmarts will HAVE to get on board.