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H&M CEO Speaks Frankly About Overseas Factories and ‘Too Thin’ Models

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO / by Mattias Bard for H&M

Following the tragic Bangladesh factory collapse last month, where the final death toll exceeds 1000, H&M's manufacturing practices have been under a lot of scrutiny. Although no H&M clothing was manufactured at Rana Plaza, the site of the accident, the Sweden-based retailer is currently "the largest purchaser of garments from Bangladesh." Together with the Gap (which also didn't supply garments from Rana Plaza), H&M was the target of a petition which racked up 900,000 signatures, demanding that the two companies commit to enforcing better labor conditions at overseas factories. (H&M has agreed to sign a legally-binding safety agreement; Gap and Wal-mart are currently drafting an alternate plan.)

H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson has just given an extensive and pretty interesting interview to the Metro World News in Stockholm, on a wide range of subjects including H&M's manufacturing policies and body diversity in modeling. 

On how ethical production fits into their bottom line:

We’d been able to get a bigger profit if we charged somewhat higher prices and lowered the quality, and if we hadn’t invested many million dollars in sustainability, but this is a way for us of giving back to the customer, and that increases demand.

As a little bit of a fact-check and to give H&M all the credit it's due: the company has taken major steps to invest in eco-friendly initiatives, including launching the Conscious Collection, which is constructed out of sustainable fabrics. And this year, the company joined Nike in publishing a comprehensive list of its suppliers (95%), making it one of the most transparent companies in the industry. 

On model body diversity:

We have a huge responsibility here. We’re a large company, many people see us, and we advertise a lot. I don’t think we’ve always been good. Some of the models we’ve had have been too skinny. That’s something we think a lot about and are working on. We want to show diversity in our advertising and not give people the impression that girls have to look a particular way. By and large, I think we’ve succeeded: we’ve many different kinds of models from different ethnic backgrounds. In our last campaign we had a somewhat more buxom model, and now we’re having Beyoncé, who’s a bit curvier as well. I believe that the models in our advertising should look sound and healthy. There are models who’re too thin or obviously underweight, but there are also those who’re just thin, and they’re the ones we should keep working with, as long as they look sound and healthy. We can get more disciplined, because sometimes there have been mistakes.

Have to eye-roll at Persson for patting himself on the back for taking such a huge risk by photographing megastar Beyonce for an H&M campaign, but the rest of his remarks are pretty impressive. Companies like H&M do have a huge responsibility and can do a lot of good if they're willing to think of their gigantico companies as institutions that sell stuff but also have an impact on the world around them, not just money-sucking vacuum cleaners. 

H&M was recently praised for running a beachwear campaign on the homepage of its website, which featured a plus-size model without fanfare. The company released no press release, included no lame side copy about being sexy at any size, just showed a *really gorgeous* girl with a body type that isn't common in fashion advertising. 

On who uses overseas factories that pay workers minimum wage (like, everyone):

"It’s a common misperception that cheap brands use certain manufacturers and expensive brands use others. We’re one of 30-40 companies buying from many of our suppliers. There are apparel companies that charge their customers low prices, medium prices, and high prices. The workers’ pay is the same regardless of which company is buying. If you look at an H&M top for SEK 99 and then look at one in a different chain that costs SEK 999, many people think, “These workers are much, much better paid.” But their pay is the same. What’s interesting is not the price of the clothing item but what the company does. Don’t trust everything you see and hear in the media, don’t look at the prices. Maybe I sound cocky, but I dare promise that no apparel company in the whole world does as much as H&M. I don’t think customers have that image."

This is very much worth remembering. Companies at every price point manufacture overseas, most often at factories that pay workers minimum wage. Armani is one of the few luxury brands that openly manufactures in China, but plenty of its peers (Prada, Louis Vuitton) work with Asian suppliers and factories on the sly. Same with smaller, mid-market contemporary lines that might seem like they're operating differently: for example, hip Paris-based brands Zadig & Voltaire or Maje "manufacture mainly in countries with low labor costs like Romania, Turkey, Thailand and China." H&M seems like a bad guy because it's so big and visible, because its production cycle and business model is based on customers treating clothing as if it were disposable (Elizabeth Cline's book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, has been in the news a lot lately), but its manufacturing practices are roughly equivalent to those of most other Western brands. 

Anyway, it's worth reading the full interview