Confessions of an H&M Addict

For those of us without much money but with a love of dressing up, H&M is our mecca. But anything that looks that good on you and doesn't cost much must be part of some deal with the devil, right? Especially if the tag says "Made in Cambodia."

I had long suspected H&M was engaged in unfair labor practices, but was afraid to find out. After my last trip to one of New York's H&M stores, the guilt was too much. So I started to do a little research.

I started with the H&M website, which had such a friendly and optimistic tone that I almost booked another flight back to New York. The company is donating a lot of money to tsunami relief and working on a project to stop the spread of HIV in Cambodia. Was this sop for a guilty conscience or a sign of a socially responsible business? After all, Exxon gives money to environmental groups while simultaneously destroying the environment. I pressed on.

Finally, I found the "Code of Conduct" page. Here's what it says:

"H&M does not have any factories of its own. Instead we buy all our garments and other goods from around 700 suppliers, primarily in Europe and Asia. Since we do not have direct control over this production we have drawn up guidelines for our suppliers, which together form our Code of Conduct. This Code of Conduct is partly based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and ILO conventions on working conditions and rights at work. It is there so that we can be sure that our products are produced under good working conditions."

The code includes requirements concerning the working environment, a ban on child labour (that's "labor" to us Americans), fire safety, working hours, wages, and freedom of association. Apparently, H&M has regular inspections of the factories it works with. And what if they find violations of, say, child-labor laws, for example? The website assures me that they always act in the "best interests of the child." They don't define who decides the best interests of the child, but still, H&M goes on with a reasonably well-thought out explanation, that is in line with the policy encouraged by Child Workers in Asia and other activist and advocacy support groups:

"On each individual occasion our ultimate aim is to help the child to a better future. Our policy in respect of child labour must not result in children being kicked out of factories without any follow-up, with the risk that he or she will instead end up in heavier and more dangerous work or - in the worst case - in prostitution."

They go on to say if they find two incidents of child labor in the same factory, they cease their involvement with that factory (which leaves the children in that factory out of luck, I suppose.)

Next, I downloaded H&M's just released Corporate Social Responsibilty Report. The 2002 report has a cover sheet of a bunch of happy and well-dressed children, but by the 2004 report, these children have been replaced by a photograph of a young Asian woman with a grim expression and a blue apron. This seems emblematic of the company's new approach, which is a change from primarily monitoring factories to make sure they're following the rules to addressing the "root cause" of labor problems. I'm thrilled. My favorite clothing store is apparently as radical and interested in fomenting revolution as I am.

According to Corporate Social Responsibility manager Ingrid Schullstrom, H&M's "core values" include not just getting women, men, and children into cute figure-flattering outfits, but also taking responsibility for the local communities the company works in. And this seems to be working out financially for them as well. H&M is planning to open 85 to 90 stores in the coming year.

All this was promising, but not quite convincing. Of course H&M reps were going to say they were doing good works. To find out more, I visited the folks at Students Against Sweatshops. They didn't have anything listed against H&M, so I checked out Sweatshop Watch. Nothing listed. So far, so good.

But just when I was contemplating a new pair of aviator sunglasses, I discovered that UNITE HERE, the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial, Hotel and Restaurant Employees (basically, everyone connected to clothing and food), had organized a boycott campaign of H&M back in 2003.

The campaign alleged that H&M wouldn't allow U.S. workers to unionize, and there were concerns about how they treated their workers in Indonesia. The boycott didn't gain as much grassroots support as many of their other campaigns, but the dispute between UNITE and H&M went all the way to the National Labor Review Board in November of 2004.

At that point, it seemed to die away. Not able to find anything recent about the boycott, I called UNITE's Press Secretary, Amanda Cooper. Ms. Cooper said that UNITE had worked out an agreement with H&M to represent its New Jersey Distribution Center workers.

"Oh," I said, "Does that mean that all the labor issues are resolved? Is it okay to shop there?"

Ms. Cooper said there were some "complications" and she had to check. She'd get right back to me. When she came back on the line, she told me, "Yes. We're still talking to them about some issues with their retail workers and garment workers, but basically it's okay to shop there." While it was not the warmest endorsement I've ever heard, it was enough to ease my guilt. Now I just have to wait for the West-Coast store to open.

I've always been a strong critic of consumer activism that focuses solely on where you shop and where you boycott. An even cursory analysis of sweatshop conditions leads to the conclusion that transforming the World Trade Organization, and global trade agreements, so that people come before profit, would do a lot more for factory workers than just not shopping at your favorite cheap clothing store. But in the meantime, I'd love it if one of the sweatshop watch places would post a list of stores the way health and environmental groups post lists of seafood, with each one color-coded. Red would mean "don't shop there or you'll burn in hell." Yellow (like H&M) meaning "okay for occasional splurges but nothing to be proud of" and green for "go ahead, these are the clothiers of the revolution." Any takers?

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