During the world cup in Brazil, Nike lauched a t-shirt line that was entirely produced in Brazil, from the cotton plantation to the printed-on artwork – all of it was locally made and part of the profits would be donated to a charity that works with young people in a socially risky situations. An impressive work of social activism, primarily involving a developing country, the less skeptical of us would believe. But Nike does not convince me, remembering the child labour indicents from a few years ago. When I saw this campaign, so strategically planned to happen when all eyes were turned to Brazil, I could not help wondering if this social activism that is clearly a marketing strategy really helps or make a difference when placed alongside the company’s careless approach to production?
These ‘laudable’ attitudes, which work very well if viewed in an isolated context, may end up losing sense when you look at the big picture. Especially if that big picture includes manufacturing conditions and a lack of accountability with the chain of production. How commendable is donating a few measly dollars (which is practically nothing compared to the extraordinary profits of the company) or use recyclable fabrics, when the massive and predatory production ends up negatively influencing much more than the proposed well, you wonder.
But let’s leave Nike aside for a moment. Since 2012, H&M publicly releases its annual sustainability report, with impressive numbers and coverage of every detail of what can be considered sustainable: their cotton production, their ‘supernatural efforts’ to save energy and water during the production process, their social responsibility and even the impressive number of women (50% of employees in the Swedish company are female) employed by the low-cost fashion brand. Also, H&M never fail to remind us of their efforts to reduce the amount of textiles in landfills by accepting clothes that we no longer want or use, giving us a 5% discount on the purchase of new pieces.
Just as the aforementioned Nike campaign, the annual report of the second largest fast-fashion company in the world is impressive. Not only because the numbers themselves are very convincing, but because H&M does a fairly good job inviting their consumers to buy consciously, not only with their campaign to collect used clothing, but also with their eco-friendly annual Conscious Collections. But again, H&M has a dark history behind its production process, as well as all several other fast fashion brands that produce at a very low cost in developing countries. And put that way, once again, I question myself, do all these positive actions really matter?
In fact, they matter. They matter to the charity that received part of the profits of Nike’s sales. They matter to the people who benefit directly and indirectly in a positive way from these actions. They also matter for producers of organic cotton. The fact that a multinational company such as H&M, is employing women as half its staff matters to the feminist cause. It matters when such a large and powerful company cares enough to decrease its consumption of water and energy, even if only to achieve a commendable annual report. Indirectly, these attitudes also serve to show that consumers are more aware and concerned, and they come, increasingly, demanding social activism from the large corporations. But it is also very important for us consumers, that we understand that these big companies do all this in a strategic way and that they are thinking more in profits than causes.
Last week, Business Of Fashion came out with a story addressing the consequences of the collapse of the Rana Plaza, the manufacturing factory in Bangladesh working with Primark and Benetton, among others. A year after the death of over 1200 people, no one has been held accountable and the fund to help the victims of the tragedy did not meet its goals even halfway. A reminder that when social marketing is not done in a good way, social issues such as victims of on-the-job injuries, stand aside.
Do not get me wrong – I’m no hypocrite and I buy fast-fashion. I am a freelance fashion writer living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and giving shelter, food and health treatments to seven stray dogs. I know how, sometimes, our only option when we need or want something, is to resort to the big-name retailers. I also know that luxury brands, despite their steep prices, produce largely under the same conditions of fast-fashion bargain brands, but luxury is not as wide spread (or largely critiqued) as fast-fashion.
The fact is that people, most of the time, know exactly what is behind a $5 t-shirt, but prefer to ignore the facts or lean on the age-old excuse that ‘if we stopped buying clothes made in developing countries all these poor wretched people producing for us would lose their jobs.’ Even though, deep down, we know that these ‘poor wretched people’ will not lose their jobs if we as consumers came with demands that brands begin to migrate part of funding of the marketing and super model caches into a more fair and human manufacturing process. And let’s be honest, we do not need $5 t-shirts – we can actually pay a fair price for what we buy.
So let’s not let those good-hearted social campaigns and impressive numbers encourage sustainability, distract us and not allow us to see the whole story. Give preference to fast fashion made locally, sustainably produced or supportive of institutions. Let’s use our funds to show that we’re keeping a close eye on brands’ attitudes and we know what we are buying. Let’s do our part and with our power of consumption demand that large retailers to do theirs.
To understand more about how big brands really work, check out Naomi Klein`s book NO LOGO – it will open your eyes to product manufacturing and how it affects us in a much bigger way that we can possibly imagine.