What we can learn from H&M

by Rebekka Edlund

Of late, the reputation of the Swedish clothing giant H&M has been hard-hit. The company has lost 40% of its market value in two years, with analysts interpreting the brand’s problems with a failure to adapt to a change in customer preference towards online shopping.

And then a green H&M sweater, modelled by Liam Mango, a cute little 5-year-old Nigerian boy living in Stockholm, caused international outrage. With grave consequences not only for the company but also for the model and his family, who had to move house for security reasons, as the BBC reported.

How could H&M be so tone-deaf, one wonders… why didn’t anyone at H&M stop and think that “coolest monkey in the jungle” worn by a black 5-year-old could result not only in accusations of racism and negative press, but in actual physical violence, including the destruction of H&M shops?

As I’ve often observed with frustration while working in mid- to large-sized organizations, policies and concepts take an incredibly long time to trickle down into every corner of day-to-day operations. As any self-respecting 21st-century corporation, H&M has advanced sustainability and human rights policies and guidelines, which have long become the standard mantra of global companies.

Just this brief quote from the H&M groups sustainability report shows that the company has thought things through at some level:

“Sustainability starts at the drawing board. We need to create fashion without compromising on design, quality, price or sustainability. Our choice of materials and our designs impact the environment and the people who make and wear our clothes. “

And let’s keep in mind it’s a corporation based in Sweden, where even schools have a major mandate from the government to teach human rights principles such as respect for people of all origins, religions, genders and sexual orientations.

As we can see from this one green sweater, however, it still seems to be a major challenge to put these ideals into practice.

What went wrong? And what can we learn from this? I see three important lessons here:

  1. In a globalized economy dominated by the internet, we always simultaneously address a multitude of different audiences with different perspectives.
    While the designer and the photographer, the model and even the model’s mom, a Nigerian living in Stockholm, seem to have thought this sweater was cute and saw no harm in the boy wearing it, others did not share this view. South African audiences in particular understandably flew into instant rage.
  2. Organizations need sound management processes that implement policies. It doesn’t help to have a sustainability policy published somewhere in the back of your annual report, if there are no processes to implement and double-check said policy in daily operations. As H&M shows us, this applies to everything from safety measures in the production of chemicals, to the design and marketing of sweaters.
  3. As businesses have become more global in their outreach and the speed of communication increases and becomes more difficult to control, keeping on top of things requires constant monitoring of social developments. If we as communications professionals can help companies become more aware of what happens around us, we can not only help improve reputations, but also help contribute to a more positive society. Because no one needs racists slogans on sweaters.

So let’s hope this unfortunate H&M incident can teach companies to become more sensitive to human rights in practice. We cannot stop at guidelines and policies, we have to be able to produce sweaters without causing any riots.