H&M says fashion can be cheap and ethical

Wed Jan 29, 2014 7:06pm EST
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By Emma Thomasson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Hennes & Mauritz, the world's second-biggest fashion retailer, believes there is no conflict between its mission to sell more budget clothes and a drive to improve the environment and working conditions at its suppliers.

"We want to make sustainable fashion more democratic," Helena Helmersson, H&M's head of sustainability, told Reuters.

"We don't aim for sustainability to be a luxury thing."

The Swedish company is one of the biggest buyers of garments from Bangladesh, where the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory last April killed more than 1,100 people, drawing global attention to the poor conditions in which many in Asia work.

H&M customers, many of them idealistic youngsters, are becoming more critical of the use of cheap labor, with the company sinking last year to second-to-last place in a perceived sustainability ranking in its biggest market Germany.

"What hurts H&M is an assumption that they must be exploiting their workers because they produce cheap clothes," said Joachim Schoepfer, head of corporate reputation for the Serviceplan agency, which conducts an annual survey on companies' image in Germany.

Low-cost production in places like Bangladesh and China has helped H&M build a global empire with more than 3,000 stores in 53 countries, and it faces growing competition from even cheaper rivals such as Britain's Primark and U.S. chain Forever 21.

"There is a misconception that lower prices in the stores mean bad working conditions or less pay," said Helmersson, a 40-year-old Swede who has worked at H&M for 17 years.   Continued...

People walk past the window of an H&M textile shop in this longtime exposure photograph taken in Frankfurt December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach