Clothing retail giant H&M has found itself at the center of a race scandal, with one of its promotional photos sparking outrage for its apparently racist content.
A photo found on H&M’s online store, depicting a young black model wearing a hoodie with the slogan “The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” has prompted a number celebrity partners to sever ties with the Swedish brand. They may have lost quite a few customers as well, as many have objected to the photo on social media.
While the choice to use a black model – it’s thought that the young boy’s family is Ethiopian – was undoubtedly insensitive and calls of racist undertones may be justified, what’s notable about the scandal is the hypocrisy of those who have chosen this as the moment to cut ties with the brand.
I CAN’T ASSOCIATE WITH YOU…NOW
Several celebrities have publicly denounced H&M as a result of the photo. Ethiopian-Canadian singer The Weeknd was expected to be the face of an upcoming menswear collection but has pulled out of the deal. The Weeknd, whose own racially sensitive songs include lyrics such as, “All these R&B N**gas be so lame, got a sweet Asian chick, she go lo mein,” tweeted a statement that he, “Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m [sic] deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore…”
Rapper G-Eazy, another celebrity who recently announced a fashion partnership with the brand, has followed The Weeknd’s lead, posting on social media that:
Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign quickly evaporated, and I’ve decided at this time our partnership needs to end…I can’t allow for my name and brand to be associated with a company that could let this happen. I hope that this situation will serve as the wake up call that H&M and other companies need to get on track and become racially and culturally aware, as well as more diverse at every level.
But while the spotlight is now focused on H&M’s poor advertising decisions, the mainstream media appear not to have noticed that these same celebrities weren’t bothered by the company’s extremely dubious ethical track record.
H&M’S MANY ETHICAL ABUSES
The 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,134 and injured 2,500 people brought worldwide attention to the harsh conditions that garment workers face in today’s “fast fashion” industry. Among the victims were garment workers who had been ordered back to work, despite safety concerns over the building. While H&M specifically was not among the brands operating in that particular building, a number of reports have suggested that the company is responsible for similarly poor working conditions in its factories. In 2016, the Clean Clothes Campaign found that H&M’s factories in Bangladesh were still unsafe, despite the company’s post-Rana Plaza pledge to improve safety for its workers.
Based on interviews with garment workers at H&M’s supplier factories in several countries, the Asia Floorwage Alliance reports a range of abuses. These include female employees being fired for getting pregnant, unethical use of short-term contracts, overlong working hours, unsafe working conditions, and “wage theft” – being paid below a living wage and/or below the legal minimum wage. Cambodian NGO the Centre for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights also revealed that H&M’s garment workers in the country experienced fainting as a result of excessive heat in the factory and long working hours, as well as restricted toilet breaks and inadequate sick leave. There were also fears of discrimination against staff who would choose to unionize, especially following an incident where Cambodian authorities responded violently to protests.
H&M’s publicity machine has always been careful to say the right things, buts its record on the ground is a different story. Anannya Bhattacharjee, Indian activist and international coordinator of the Asia Floorwage Alliance commented:
“The thing we find with H&M is that they are superficially responsive—they’ll answer phone calls and emails. But they’re actually very non-transparent…These [abuses] are all, to me, inhuman treatment of workers… They’re all connected and they all form a web of terror, insecurity, and a high level of vulnerability for workers.”
H&M has also launched a series of environmental campaigns, such as the partial use of organic cotton, Climate Positive by 2040, and a clothing recycling initiative that has installed recycle bins at some store locations, but these efforts only address factors that are clearly visible to the consumer. A report by Ethical Consumer and the Changing Markets Foundation revealed in June that H&M was among several companies using “dirty viscose,” polluting waters in China, Indonesia, and India. The pollution is destroying local livelihoods dependent on fishing and is suspected of causing cancer. Dyes and printing chemicals used by the company were also found to pollute Chinese waters.
SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR HYPOCRISY
The Weeknd, G-Eazy, and a host of social justice warriors may indeed be “deeply offended” by an advertising photo, but it’s a pity they didn’t feel the same way about the many real abuses that H&M has allowed in order to become a multi-million-dollar retailer.
Unfortunately, we’re in an era in which words are considered more offensive than deeds. Perhaps the Weeknd should, in fact, “check his privilege” – he is, after all, a millionaire who thought nothing of profiting from the suffering of third-world garment workers, yet can’t stand the sight of a photograph.