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Cheap thrills: The problem with H&M’s hyper-disposable fashion

Hordes of shoppers will descend on an Auckland shopping mall tomorrow for the opening of fast-fashion retailer H&M’s first New Zealand store. Anny Ma explains why she’s staying home instead.

High fashion and fast fashion represent two opposing poles of the garment industry. One is aspirational, inspirational and dreamily sartorial; the other is a rogue democratising force breaking down the vanguard and knocking it off for the masses. Robin Hoodie, if you will. Stores like H&M, Zara and Topshop – all of which have arrived here recently, or are set to open imminently – creatively borrow designs from the rich and give them to the people who can’t pay $1,000 for a Chloė bag, but can afford the $19.99 Forever 21 version.

You could argue that wrestling fashion from its elitist gatekeepers is a good thing. But the over-consumption fast fashion has created, the damage done by the industry’s repeated humanitarian and environmental violations – that’s another thing entirely.

A shopper at the opening of an H&M store in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Getty

A shopper at the opening of an H&M store in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The traditional Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer seasons are obsolete in fast fashion; their minimum turnover is 52 collections a year. Twice a week, Zara stores receive new lines – not restocks, but new lines. If a ‘design’ (often a near-replica of an original high fashion piece) is popular, it’s redesigned and restocked. If not, it goes on sale or is sent back. Impulse buying is a modern trend driven by this excess – in the 1930s, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, nine outfits is a week of going to work, socialising, and gym #activewear.

Being a girl, I obviously did home economics at school, and it took me one term to make a cushion. If it takes 10-year-old Anny 12 weeks to design and execute an ugly af cushion, how can Zara design, pattern-make, produce, and dispatch garments in less than a month? The answer: tens of thousands of workers (Zara’s parent company Inditex has over 150,000 employees), and some questionable outsourcing practices.

Outsourcing to remote locations in the developing world makes economic sense, but it creates convoluted supply chains. If the factory you outsource to can’t do part of it, they will outsource to another factory with no links back to you. Tricky. This was a key cause of the confusion around accountability after the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed more than a thousand Bangladeshi factory workers – for a time nobody knew which brands were actually produced there. The Clean Clothes initiative called out brands they found implicated, and demanded compensation. (Despite no evidence of links to the factory, H&M was one of the first companies to sign onto the 2013 Fire and Safety Accord in Bangladesh and donated to the Rana Plaza Arrangement too.)

H&M is a slightly more accessible brand than rival fashion behemoth Zara, with a lower price point and higher quantities of trend-driven stock. Globally, H&M intends on opening 425 new stores this year. That is at least one store a day, one of which is in New Zealand tomorrow. Zara follows in H&M’s footsteps next week, also at Sylvia Park.

It’s a safe bet that most shoppers won’t be swayed by the ethical issues raised by Radio NZ and Catalogue this week. Sales for H&M’s opening week will still likely be enough to buy a house in Herne Bay, and Zara’s first day of trade will easily fill the driveway with a fleet of cars, because fast fashion.

Young German activists demonstrate against working conditions at Bangladeshi production sites used by the H&M clothing chain. Photo: Getty

Young German activists demonstrate against working conditions at Bangladeshi production sites used by the H&M clothing chain. Photo: Getty

The environmental effects of fast fashion post-production are just as contentious as the production itself. H&M champions a clothing exchange programme, wherein customers’ old clothes are traded for a discount. While that’s nice, it’s still promoting their product and a cycle of excess. They’ve also recently admitted that only 0.1% of the clothing collected is recycled, with the remaining 99.9% going elsewhere, i.e. landfill. I don’t know if this scheme will be available at Sylvia Park, but you won’t need to participate unless you’re intending to buy something already.

It’s healthy to question big business – public pressure is largely the reason Corporate Social Responsibility departments have become a must-have for fast fashion brands in recent years. But it’s wrong to assume that mass production automatically equals unethical production. Companies like Levi’s have transparent and robust ethical policies concerning both workers and the environment. If the most widely recognised fashion brand in the world can do it, well…

Levi’s is just one of many fashion brands operating in Bangladesh, which is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, largely thanks to its textile and clothing industry. To ensure more than just legal compliance in these foreign markets, the onus is on brands to strictly enforce their self-regulating codes of conduct with routine independent inspections, and to act on commitments to bettering conditions and wages. As customers, we have the right to tell brands that this is a requirement for us to spend with them. Constantly calling for brands to pull out of countries like Bangladesh is not only impractical, it would cause irreparable economic damage.

Ironically, criticisms of trend-driven fashion are driven by yet another trend: hashtag ethical, babes.

Despite all of the filters offered on Instagram, there’s still none for the torrent of poorly researched ‘information’ shared there regarding retail ethics and fast fashion. I have sprained eyelids from rolling my eyes at the unfounded claims of reformed shopper, part-time vegan, ethical bandwagonner types. Being an informed shopper is far more effective than uploading false hot takes for likes. Yes, every shopper should feel free to participate in such an important debate, but please, do it with an informed perspective. Don’t get on a soapbox if its structural integrity is comparable to that of a $9 sweater.

Brands like twenty-seven names and Harman Grubiša are personal favourites of mine, and they would never sell a $9 sweater. Their clothing is not fast and it never will be – they stick to traditional fashion seasons, with entire production runs of the same quantities as one H&M tank top colourway.

Harman Grubiša, twenty-seven names and H&M all sell a classic white shirt – the kind of thing fashion mags tell us “every woman should own”. Their shirts sell for $27 NZD, $270 NZD, and $395 NZD. Yes, the twenty-seven names shirt costs 10 times the H&M one, and will obviously last 10 times longer because of the quality of fabric, design and production.

Sure, it’s easy for me to say that I buy quality clothing (I have a credit card – I cannot actually afford it), but there’s no denying these stores are of genuine use to low socioeconomic groups. If you can’t afford to buy sanitary products there’s no way you’re going to buy a $400 shirt, and that’s an important gap that fast fashion helps too – despite the questionable practices that get us there.

Approaching fashion with a community mindset rather than a consumption one will drive the progress the industry so desperately needs. For starters, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your wardrobe, clear it. Consignment stores like Recycle Boutique, or op shops and charities like Dress for Success and Fix Up Look Sharp will happily take your goods. Recycle Boutique and op shops are great places to shop too – you’ll always find a white shirt, and those vintage 501s that hug your butt nice and snug.

Despite their many shortcomings, fast fashion brands are starting to admit the serious problems inherent in their industry and are slowly working towards solutions. The fix won’t happen overnight – this isn’t a mason jar of oats, it’s a systemic and global societal issue. Our attention as customers is the prize the industry is vying for, and it’s actually pretty easy to leverage this: tell them what you think, and don’t buy their clothes if you don’t support their business practices.

Next time you’re about to purchase something, instead of asking “Does my butt look big in this?”, ask “Do I need this?” – 9/10 times the answer will be “yeah, nah”.

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