H & M Goes Socially Responsible

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IMG_1644So fascinating how corporations have adopted the rhetoric of social responsibility as a branding tool. Here, we see this strategy at work with H & M, in a central Florida mall. References to Spidey are always fun, of course. We can all enjoy the pun. But more interesting here is the notion that fashion CAN be socially responsible. H & M attempts–in a slick and aesthetically pleasing way–to set itself up as a warrior in the battle against sweatshop labor. This ad is part of the company’s attempt to reinvent both its image and (it claims) its labor policies in the wake of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The ad catches one’s eye. It caught mine, anyhow. Who knew H & M was socially conscious? As the retailer might hope, I went online to learn more. “H & M Conscious” is the company’s campaign to make a “fashion future” that both “looks good and does good.”

Indeed, some news reports also state the company has made an effort to get more control over production processes and improve working conditions in the factories that make its clothes  (companies like H & M use middleman factories, so efforts to control labor and safety are directed at putting pressure on those factories and creating standards they must adhere to).

However, even as the media has reported H & M’s commitment to these changes, reporters have noted what the company leaves out. And some progressive journalists are skeptical.
An optimistic view might say, this ad assemblage in the H & M storefront shows progress. Sweatshops are pretty much a household concept nowadays. The anti-sweatshop movement of the1990s gained enough success that corporations have responded to it. The cynic might say, stop! What’s really happened is corporations have co-opted this movement and neutralized it. Can social responsibility remain such when it is also an advertising tool? Can a “living wage” be both an activist goal AND a marketing tool and retain any of its core meaning?

Of course, the anti-sweatshop campaign with its focus on fair wages and safe , humane treatment is not the only example of corporate co-optation of activist language. The same process has happened with the green campaign, the red campaign, and more. The cynic might argue that using the words is just a strategy.

And the cynical historian might point out this process has characterized consumer culture throughout the 20th century. Particularly notably, Thomas Frank brilliantly points out in The Conquest of Cool how advertisers in the 1960s adopted the iconography, slogans, and themes of the countercultural movement. Once rebellion became an advertising tool, actual rebellion had to find a new voice.

Meanwhile, H & M has made “sustainability” part of its web address to promote its socially conscious theme.

I didn’t even get to gender dynamics here: perhaps the irony is obvious. H & M uses beautiful models to promote social responsibility, thus, of course, implicitly reproducing the usual standards of beauty that shape gender norms and objectify women. Moreover the beautiful, groomed, apparently happy, safe, and well-to-do women of the advertisements stand in explicit contrast to the laborers across the globe who make H & M’s clothes (and which its “conscious” campaign purports to help.)

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