Part I: People

To round out our Company Spotlight series, we are lining up the top three fast fashion brands side by side to see how their impact scores compare. Here are some stats to get the ball rolling.

The Swedish multinational fast fashion retailer who we have grown to love and hate, The H&M Group, reported 22.4 billion in earnings in 2020. They are the holding company to the H&M brand as well as COS, & Other Stories, Arket (we will dig into Arket, H&M’s “sustainable” company in Part 2 of this series) and more.

Inditex, (parent company to Zara, Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, and others) reported 17.8 billion for a nine month period in 2020 for all it’s 7 brands. No surprise that 70% of that was generated by Zara alone.

The Japan-based Fast Retailing, the home of Uniqlo –with sister brands including J Brand, Comptoir des Cotonniers,  Helmut Lang, and Theory– made $21 billion in 2019. With their strong foothold in the growing Chinese market it is expected to beat out H&M by the end of 2021.

People

The commitment to sustainability must include human rights at its forefront.  Labour rights campaigners have been sounding the alarm about fast fashion for decades now, and since about 80 billions pieces of clothing are produced per year in the fashion industry, we the consumer, are the ones tricked into providing the tinder for the human exploitative fire. Global fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo drive the market of this global supply chain through their gravity towards maximizing profits by mounting pressure on their suppliers to produce clothing quickly and cheaply for markets in the wealthier regions like North American and Europe. 

Since we are ripping the band-aid off quicker than you throw away that H&M tank top, let’s get right into how the impact of three top fast fashion brands measure up to the Arbor values.  

Your Arbor scores are unbiased and based on the publicly available data of companies providing an accurate evaluation of their impact on the people and the planet. We pull data from all facets of sustainability from environmental social governance (EGS), UN certifications and sustainability goals, labour, and production, just to name a few.  An important stream of information comes from whether or not a company publicly discloses the list of it’s supply chain manufacturers. It is no secret that garment workers, primarily women, are routinely exploited. With a publically available supply chain, brands are held relatively accountable for sourcing product from factories that partake in fair labour practices. This also opens the doors for further action towards further accountability and transparency. 

“Transparency is primarily a means to an end, and mere information about where a garment is produced does not automatically guarantee meaningful changes in factory labor conditions,”

Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, which is part of a coalition that started the Transparency Pledge (of which H&M is a signatory).

So, out of H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo who publicly discloses their supplier lists? Since 2017, Fast Retailing, home of Uniqlo, has made public all of its core fabric mills and the majority of its core sewing factories as well as the factories to where they outsource some of the processing like washing and printing  They update the list yearly and aim to have a complete list of all of their factories publicly available by 2022. 

H&M, who first published their supplier list in 2013, has what they call a “consumer-facing transparency layer” on this website where customers can click on the sustainability tab to access the supply chain information in real time. Launched in 2019, shoppers can find where the clothing was manufactured, details on the fabric constitution and recycling, name of the supplier or the authorized subcontractor, address, and the number of workers employed there. 

This, as a macabre example, it’s a bit like comparing “free-range” and “free-run”. These factories, like the Jinnat Apparels & Fashion plant in Bangladesh, is 7-storey high building with each floor the size of a football field with production lines of machines sardined together. This is better than nothing, of course, but it begs the question as to whether disclosing these lists leads to meaningful improvement in the industry or just prolongs the existence of the system as it allows consumers the luxury of turning a blind eye to the conditions of the workers when they have a bit of extra information. 

Now what about Zara? Unlike H&M and Uniqlo, Zara’s main manufacturing hub in central Spain  is also it’s headquarters. They manufacture roughly half of all products in Spain, 26% in the rest of Europe, 24% in Asia and Africa. 

But other than the country location of manufacturers, Zara provides no public information in regards to its supplier lists. A comb through the Inditex Traceability page where “transparency is fundamental in our relationships with suppliers” mentions that they require their suppliers to disclose to Inditex all facilities where the garments are cut, sewn, dyed, etc, but not to external arbitrators or to the public. Without external accountability, this leaves garment workers ripe for exploitation, and not just in factories. A 2014 study from WEIGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), found that sub-contracted home-based workers, who make up a sizeable shadowy chuck of the garment industry. These sub-contracted garment workers earn less than a dollar a day (because they fall outside of the monitored wages of factories) and rarely have contracts.

“...the poor condition of their homes leaves home-based workers vulnerable to occupational health and safety hazards, and limits their productivity. Without much space for doing the stitching and storing the materials, many workers can only take one day’s worth of work home at a time.  Their homes flood during the rainy season, and they bear the costs if raw materials are damaged. When the electricity goes out, they work by candlelight, exposing their homes to fire hazards.” 

WEIGO, Informal Economy Monitoring Study
Sector Report: Home-Based Workers,
Martha Alter Chen, 2014

Now that we know a bit more about the supply chain let’s get into some numbers. 

H&M

Community 3/5 
Human Rights: 2/5 

“Respecting human rights is essential for H&M Group to operate sustainably and successfully. This means we treat everyone equally, with respect and dignity, wherever or whoever they are”

H&M’s suppliers employ 1.6 million textile workers (no word on whether or not this includes non-contractual home-based workers) and their production supply chain employs 1.56 million people. According to H&M, their business is all about people. They have offices set up in all the countries where their products are made with the intention of internally monitoring the factories and to better engage with NGOs, governments, and unions on the ground. 

H&M also boosts quite substantially about how closely they monitor worker wages from their direct suppliers.

“We want to make sure suppliers are paying at least the statutory minimum wage and that all benefits and additional allowances due to workers are paid correctly, on time, and in full. For this reason, wages data are checked through virtual and in-person audits by our local teams.”

From H&M

This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.  In many countries, like India and China, the minimum wage systems are complicated. For example, India has 1202 minimum wages rates. The structure differs based on the following factors: state, area within the state based on development level (zone), industry, occupation, and skill-level. China’s minimum wage structure varies by district and regional levels. Large urban cities and municipalities like Beijing receive higher minimum wages than smaller towns and rural regions within the same district. And as capitalism is as capitalism does, this offers companies a range of options when choosing where to set up shop and allows them the choice to employ a supplier in a region with a lower minimum wage. Sticking to the statutory minimum wages set by governments doesn’t mean the workers are being paid fairly and when regional rates are convoluted with those of urban areas the scale to which workers are paid is devalued. 

After the Rana Plaza collapse on April 25th, 2013 that killed 1,135 people, the safety conditions of the factories employed by many fast fashion brands were justly thrust under the microscope. 

The H&M Group signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, in 2013. This legally binding accord, also signed by Inditex (neither of which had any direct ties to Rana Plaza) is an agreement between the international trade union IndustriALL Global Union and more than 200 other brands and retailers to make structural improvements for factories across Bangladesh. But according to a 2021 report from IndustiALL, a fire on July 18 at a factory in Dhaka where 49 workers burned to death –and where there are allegations where children as young as 11 were employed– shows that eight years after Raza Plaza there is still a long way to go. 

Fast fashion deadlines create a climate of harassment in the garment industry. In a factory employed by H&M in the Tamil Nadu state, more than two dozen workers have spoken up after the body of a female worker was found after suffering extreme harassment and intimidation on the job by her supervisor. he later confessed to all claims –including her death. H&M pledged “an independent third-party investigation” as to how and why this woman was unable to seek help and protection at work. Still waiting.

“We must understand gender-based violence as an outcome of the global supply chain structure. H&M’s fast fashion supply chain model creates unreasonable production targets and underbid contracts, resulting in women working unpaid overtime and working very fast under extreme pressure.”

Jennifer Rosenbaum, US director of Global Labour Justice

The Global Labour Justice, with the Asian Floor Wage Alliance, penned a letter to H&M calling to stop gender-based violence within their supply chain. H&M is the world’s largest private employer and has the power to set the standard within the industry to prioritize workers rights and to end gender-based violence. But with a 2/5 Arbor, they aren’t even close to using their global power for good. 

Zara

Community 3/5 
Human Rights 3/5 

To see why Zara is one point ahead of H&M at 3/5 let’s take a look at how their production model is set up. Unlike most retailers, Zara changes their clothing designs about every two weeks instead of the industry standard of every two to three months. 

According to SCM Global, their supply chain pumps out roughly 11,000 distinct styles per year, worldwide, compared to other fast fashion brands who produce up to 4,000 individual styles per year. This model requires Zara to constantly be sourcing and employing new factories to keep up with the never-ending demand for goods, and sometimes this drives production into areas of high conflict.

In March of 2021, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, was pressured by the Chinese government to retract a statement made on its website about their “zero tolerance policy” for forced labor and that it did not have any ties to Xinjiang. The statement is still visible via the Way Back Machine. 

Screenshot of the retracted statement from the Way Back Machine

This is an important point to make about Zara’s supply chain activities because it shows how these companies are aware of the human rights abuses taking place and how they are covering their bases instead of enacting real change to their production model.

So what’s happening in China’s Xinjiang region that has Zara deleting a post like it was a regretful late-night DM? Just some industrialized crimes against humanity. 

Based on multiple claims that global retailers including Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo (already getting in trouble here!), a team of French prosecutors on the behalf of France’s antiterrorism unit have opened an investigation into their reliance on the forced labour of minorities in the Xinjiang region. The investigation, opened this year, is based on statements filed by an exiled Uyghur worker and the human rights groups including the Uyghur Institute of Europe.

Xinjiang is one of the world’s leading cotton producing regions and grows more than 80% of China's cotton. About one in five pieces of clothing, from high street to luxury goods, contains cotton from Xinjiang where multiple and well documented cases of forced labour of minority groups, especially the minority Ugyhur muslim population are working in detention camps. The Chinese government has defended these camps and called them ‘job training centres’ that are in place to help Uighur people and labour conditions, physical and mental abuse and forced sterilisation for Uighur women.

Image via the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour

In 2020, The WSC (Workers Rights Consortium) along with other rights groups formed the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour and released a call to action for companies to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang.

“An apparel brand that claims to know, with confidence, that all the farms and factories it uses in the region are free of forced labour is either deeply cynical or misinformed.”  

Scott Nova, director of the WSC, in a statement made to the Guardian

Multinational brands like Zara have long been living above the law and profited off of not just cheap, but forced labour. These props into their lawlessness have opened a door to a wider conversation about the complicit roles these companies play in nefarious government practices. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/CINV66rgYem/

https://www.instagram.com/p/CMvDo7VDniZ/

In Zara’s 472 page annual sustainability report for FY2019, they dedicated one whole page to their “Respect for Human Rights”. And half of that page is a graph on their strategy to integrate human rights into their plan. The graph is such a farce that we are not even going to include it, feel free to look for yourself. No accountability for their complacency or even a “next step” plan of action. They have yet to release a report for 2020, but we aren’t holding our breath. 

Uniqlo

Community 3/5 
Human Rights 4/5

With 4/5 on the Your Arbor index, Uniqlo has the highest human rights score out of the three.

Uniqlo global flagship store on March 14, 2012 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Sankei via Getty Images)

As conscious consumers, we aren’t here for a show and Uniqlo’s lack of buzzwords and algorithmic statements on their Human Rights initiatives is harsh, but a bit refreshing. To break it down to brass tacks, they approach human rights from the capitalist perspective that violations represent risks to their business and the manufacturing industry as a whole. This soulless sounding approach is in actuality an example of corporate accountability. They are assessing the risks, admitting where they need to improve, and making the adjustments accordingly. 

The distinction here lies in their use of third-party auditing. In July 2018, Fast Retailing, the parent company to Uniqlo, established a Human Rights Committee for their corporate human rights initiative. To ensure that they fulfill their obligation to human decency and that the business practices remain ethical, they hired an outside director, a former head of the Human Rights Bureau in the Japanese Ministry of Justice, and built the committee up of all outside auditors. Instead of deleting statements from their website, Uniqlo admits that contracting outside of their own company carries a risk that workers may be vulnerable due to economic or social factors in locations where they have a manufacturing base –more on this later.

As we know from H&M who only shoot for their garment supply chain workers to have a minimum wage, Fast Retailing, a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), aims for living wages. From the Fast Retailing Code of Conduct for Production Partners: “we state that a living wage should be at a level which not only satisfies workers' basic needs for clothing, food and housing, but also enables workers' decent lives... And how it is paid in our partner factories in collaboration with FLA and to understand how solutions can be implemented to address identified wage gaps.” A deeper dive into this reporting doesn’t give us much more and the wording around requirements was very vague leaving fulfillment as an option and the legal minimum wage as the only requirement.

Uniqlo fairs far better than H&M and Zara but as we know from their implication in the profitization of the forced labour camps of Xinjiang, they have a few skeletons in the closet. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), the garment industries largest coalition of labor unions and NGOs called on Uniqlo to pay $5.5 millions USD in severance owed to 2000 workers of the Jaba Garmindo factories in Indonesia after the factory filed for bankruptcy in 2014, two months after Uniqlo pulled it’s orders from the factories. Uniqlo, seemingly with the best of intentions, terminated their contract with the factory after reports of the human rights violations, but left the workers without their due severance with the factories shuttered. But according to the FLA’s Workplace Code of Conduct, it is clearly stated that participating companies, like Uniqlo, must ensure that the rights of the workers of the supply chain are protected under national and international labour and social security laws as well as the assurance that workers are paid their legally mandated compensation. And under Indonisian Law, the employees of Jaba Garmindo should be paid in full.

Manufacturing goods in the global south is not synonymous with poor quality.  The overarching option of the average consumer is to “boycott” clothing from China or other manufacturing hubs overseas. This paints the world outside of the global north with incredibly expansive and diverse nations with a broad brush stroke that all goods coming from unfamiliar nations are inferior. This casually xenophobic options fails to understand that many of the workers in the textile industry are incredibly skilled at their craft and may come from generations of artisans and tailors. Yes, many of these workers are absolutely being exploited for their skills –especially by fast fashion brands in large scale factories. But smaller brands from across the world outsource manufacturing to the global south because of their extensive experience in textile manufacturing. Many smaller scale brands who outsource overseas also prioritize employing women-owned factories or ones that give female-identify garment workers a living wage and the capacity to support their families in regions where they have less economic opportunities.

A weaving loom at a textile factory on March 31, 2021 in Aksu, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. (Photo by Cai Zengle/VCG via Getty Images)

To paraphrase Aja Barber, author and expert on fast fashion and consumption: what does the fast fashion require? A human cost. Low prices for the customer at the cost of the environment and the garment workers. There is a cost for everything and it is always paid for by the most marginalized people.