H&M is in TV4’s cross-hairs again. Two years after the Swedish broadcaster slammed the high-street retailer for failing to prevent sweatshop-like conditions in Cambodia, its Kalle Fakta (“Cold Facts”) program claimed on Tuesday that H&M is guilty of promoting “land-grabbing” in Ethiopia. The large-scale land-leasing policy, part of a broader government-led development scheme in the Omo Valley, a United National Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage site, has courted controversy from the beginning.
Although officials frame the scheme as a way to utilize under-cultivated real estate, virtually all the lands that have been cleared for foreign interests have resulted in the displacement of thousands of indigenous people, Human Rights Watch. Accounts of assault, torture, imprisonment, rape, and killings among those who resist are not uncommon.
Because dam construction, sugar plantations, and commercial agriculture consume vast amounts of water from the Omo River basin, the plan also endangers the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands who rely on the Omo’s waters.
H&M has denied operating in land-seizure hotspots, but it also says it’s unable to completely avoid cotton sourced from the Omo Valley. “The cotton used in our products come from different regions and we therefore can not guarantee that the cotton fiber is not from the affected areas,” it writes in a press release on Wednesday.
The news follows on the heels of the retailer’s intentions to “expand its sourcing footprint” by leveraging Ethiopia’s competitive wages, productivity, and natural resources.
In September, H&M announced a partnership with Swedfund, Sweden’s state venture capital unit, to develop a “responsible” Ethiopian textile industry that adheres to high social and environmental standards.
“We see the cooperation as an opportunity to get involved in Ethiopia’s growing textile industry at an early stage and to contribute to more jobs,” H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson said at the time. “We have for many years worked in existing manufacturing countries to improve working conditions and the environment. This experience is included with the establishment of cooperation with Ethiopian suppliers.”
The company says a prior risk analysis showed land-grabbing did not occur in the areas where its textile suppliers are located. It wasn’t able, however, to trace any land-grabbing further down its cotton supply chain.
But Humans Rights Watch’s Felix Horne, speaking to Kalle Fakta, says H&M needs to dig deeper. “They ask no questions about where the cotton comes [from], they ask nothing about the human-rights situation in the places where their materials are coming from, and there is no evidence that they produce some of the questions they need to ask their manufacturers and their suppliers,” he said on the program.