Livia Firth doesn’t call herself a “professional agitator” on Twitter for nothing. Faced with H&M’s Helena Helmmersson at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit on April 24, the Green Carpet Challenge founder was quick to take on not only “fast fashion” as a concept but also Helmersson’s positioning of H&M as a sustainable, ethical brand. “Why does H&M produce so many collections?” Firth grilled Helmersson. “You make them so cheap so that people feel rich because they can buy so much, you’re giving the consumer what they want. Well, my children want sugar every single day, but I don’t give it to them!”
Firth didn’t appear impressed with the Swedish retailer’s pledge to deliver a “living wage” to its workers, either. “What exactly is a living wage; what are you paying your workers?” she asked. “Give me numbers—I want numbers!”
Helmersson’s media training served her well. She corrected Firth on certain points (“We have cut down the number of collections,” she said), skirted others, and made various attempts to placate Firth’s sturm und drang.
Despite its glossy proclamations about CSR, the fact remains that H&M is a corporation, not a charity.
It would be easy to play up the sensational aspects of this so-called confrontation, but truth be told, it was far less dramatic than certain publications made it out to be.
H&M is in an interesting position—its very business model is rooted in supply and demand, shareholder interests, and free-market capitalism. Despite its glossy proclamations about corporate social responsibility, the fact remains that H&M is a corporation—one that relies on a system of rapid turnover and low prices, besides—not a charity.
H&M can put out all the “Conscious Collections” it wants, it still won’t change the world. We can—and should—hold it accountable for the promises it makes, but condemning the company for taking steps to mitigate its impact is counterproductive.
At the very minimum, H&M sets an example to its high-street brethren. And it’s this author’s opinion, in any case, that this is perhaps the best it will ever be able to do.