H&M Conscious, Conscious Exclusive, Conscious Collection, Anna Gedda, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, interviews, Bangladesh, workers rights, human rights, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers

Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M

H&M CONSCIOUS?

Together with Hendrik Alpen, sustainability business expert, stakeholder engagement, at H&M, Gedda addressed some of the criticisms H&M has faced, including its reluctance to quantify a living wage in its supplier countries.

A couple of things to note before you dig into the interview: The “Fair Wage Method” Gedda and Alpen refer to is a roadmap developed by the independent Fair Wage Network designed to ensure the regular and fair adjustment of wages according to both price increases and performance.

In H&M’s own words:

The Fair Wage Method starts with worker and management interviews. The purpose is to identify the perception on what the existing wage covers in terms of basic needs including rent, food, clothing, and education. It also evaluates if the worker feels that there is fair correlation in regards to their skills, education, etc.

After the factory has implemented a remediation plan, follow-up interviews takes place to measure if the worker’s perception of his or her wage has changed, and also the gap between worker and management perception on wage level.

According to the company’s latest numbers, H&M implemented the method at 68 factories in 2015, plus an additional 78 during 2016. Countries that will be covered by the end of the year, the company says, include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, China, and Turkey.

RELATED | H&M, M&S Not Fulfilling “Living Wage” Promises, Says New Report

H&M also has a “Social Dialogue” program, which “[aims] for democratically elected and effective employee committees at factories.”

The program, per the retailer, covers more than 40 percent of the factories producing for H&M in Bangladesh today and is also available in India and China.

But if all this talk about “social dialoguing” and “empowering” sounds a bit..well…vague, know that you’re not alone in that sentiment.

When it comes to ethical initiatives by companies such as H&M, the scale of marketing versus actual impact or scope can be “shockingly disproportionate,” according to labor-rights organizations such as Labour Behind the Label, which published a report in February about the need for greater transparency from H&M and its ethics-touting ilk.

RELATED | 7 Things to Know About H&M’s 2016 Conscious Exclusive Collection

“It is not sufficient for companies to be able to make claims about key human-rights issues without supplying the quantifiable data that allows these claims to be independently checked, and for workers and consumers to hold them to their promises,” wrote Anna McMullen, the paper’s lead author. “Companies must publish, not only supplier lists, but audit reports, and other important data such as wages paid per supplier by grade if they are to make public statements about performance on wages.”

There are specifics that are heartening: H&M’s partnership with the International Labour Organization, for instance, and its collaboration with IndustriAll Global Union on a global framework agreement to protect workers’ interests.

But H&M’s rhetoric, which it has in droves, is only as good as the outcome of its claims. To quote McMullen, “when a brand is so outward in signing public commitments, for which it receives a lot of credit, the reporting on these commitments must clearly and publicly disclose results that demonstrate measurable and verifiable progress towards real change.”

How earnest is H&M? We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, dear reader.

READ THE INTERVIEW >

H&M Conscious, Conscious Exclusive, Conscious Collection, Anna Gedda, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, interviews, Bangladesh, workers rights, human rights, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers

Labor groups have criticized H&M for failing to properly define what constitutes a living wage. How do you respond to that?

Gedda: The whole question comes down to how do you define a living wage and who can say what that should be. And until a couple of years ago, a lot of [research] papers were very much about that definition: how many calories per day should you be able to have, how many kids should you be able to afford, how education should the wage go to, and so on.

We kind of felt, it’s not really about the exact number of calories but rather the workers themselves: They will know how much wages they need to make a living. Our approach is not for us to decide a fair living wage is this amount in Bangladesh or this amount in Cambodia but actually letting the workers themselves decide the appropriate wages and then maybe negotiate about that together with the employer.

So what we’re doing with our fair-wage strategy is that we’re actually asking the workers to assess the extent to which they think their wages are covering their basic needs. And we do this on a regular basis, so we can see that the wage development is really improving over time and the workers feel that the wage they receive cover their basic needs to a large extent.

So I think it all comes down to how you define a living wage and I think the best way forward is the ones who are actually affected by that should be the ones to speak their mind, and that’s the workers.

“We think that is the best benchmark—the workers’ own perception of their wage.”

But without a clear number, how do you know if you’ve reached your benchmarks?

Gedda: We look at the workers’ surveys and we see…first we want to see a positive development in terms of real wages, and also, looking at the workers’ surveys, what do the workers themselves feel that their wages are covering.

We think that is the best benchmark—the workers’ own perception of their wage.

Alpern: It’s a complex issue because it takes a lot of perspectives, on a systemic level, into account, so when we talk about workers negotiating their wages, we don’t mean one-on-one person talking…you know, putting all the responsibility on the worker. We actually mean that behind there are systems for collective bargaining in place. And that’s a huge undertaking that’s not existing in markets like Bangladesh today.

So what we’re working with is with the factories to form worker representation so that worker representation can negotiate wages collectively for the workers and ultimately that leading to trade union systems.

Those things aren’t there like that and they won’t be there by us setting a certain wage level, but they’re really needed to drive sustainable wage developments in the country.

And also, we might not be there in that factory in 20 years or so. So that is really lasting develops in the system leading ultimately to governments adjusting the minimum wages to that level covering all the workers, not only the ones working in H&M’s supplier factories.

That’s what we’re trying to do, rather than talking about a certain wage level or a certain factory.

H&M Conscious, Conscious Exclusive, Conscious Collection, Anna Gedda, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, interviews, Bangladesh, workers rights, human rights, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers

Here’s a question we get a lot from our readers: Why not fair wages now? Why wait till 2018?

Gedda: The truth is if you are going to actually go in and change a wage system in Bangladesh or Cambodia or Myanmar, you need to work long term and holistically. You need to make the right choices.

And the thing that we’re saying is that it’s about empowering the workers, making sure that the factories have the proper systems in place, making sure that the governments have regular wage reviews and that they continuously raise the minimum wage, and of course, we as a brand think about our responsibility about the way we purchase a product. And those things they take time.

I mean, implementing the Fair Wage Method, which we have first tried in three different factories and have now expanded to 68 factories last year, we of course need…it is a process that takes time to make sure that we have the right resources, and that we see the results we want to see, and we can make improvements as we go along.

“The truth is if you are going to actually go in and change a wage system in Bangladesh or Cambodia or Myanmar, you need to work long term and holistically.”

Alpen: What’s also important for your readers in that context is not that we don’t look at current wages until 2018 and then we think everything will be fixed by then. Of course we look at wages already today. And we look at minimum wages for example, of course they need to be secured.

We’re engaging now with governments to raise minimum-wage levels and then follow up in the factory to ensure compliance with that.

And we can also already today see that the average wage in our supplier factories is substantially above the minimum wage, for example.

Our fair living wage methodology is really about getting them into self-sustaining systems where skills are reflected in wages, where the negotiation elements come into place, so that these higher-than-minimum-wage salaries are actually sustained in a system.

So that’s really what it’s all about and what really takes more time. But we also look at the wages for individual workers already today.

H&M Conscious, Conscious Exclusive, Conscious Collection, Anna Gedda, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, interviews, Bangladesh, workers rights, human rights, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers

What would you say is the No. 1 challenge to creating a fair-wage system?

Gedda: I think that is really about getting all the different actors aboard. Because we can work with the suppliers but if we are to achieve real change, we also need to work with the other brands who also work with the suppliers.

And if we work with the suppliers, we need to have the workers on board, and they, as Hendrik was saying, they need to negotiate their own wages and feel empowered to do so. So we need to make sure that they have a good social dialogue, that they are able to organize collectively and do so with the trade unions, and ultimately having the governments on board.

“It will be challenging, especially to get everyone else to understand that this isn’t something only H&M drives.”

So I think the ultimate challenge is to get each and every one of those actors to play their role and make it together.

And in Bangladesh, for example, working with the government, introducing the social dialogue program that really starts strengthening the workers and make it possible for them to organize collectively and negotiate their wages, in addition to implementing the Fair Wage Method, and of course looking at our own practices. All those different pieces need to come together.

So we’re starting to see some results and I think we’re moving in the right direction. But it will be challenging, especially to get everyone else to understand that this isn’t something only H&M drives, but that everyone drives to cover all the workers in the industry.

H&M Conscious, Conscious Exclusive, Conscious Collection, Anna Gedda, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, interviews, Bangladesh, workers rights, human rights, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers

How is H&M addressing things like “shadow” factories and illegal subcontracting?

Gedda: That is a challenge, I think, especially in Cambodia and also in Bangladesh. And no matter what brand you are, you’ll be faced with that challenge.

So for us, that’s a complete breach of trust, to use a supplier we have not had a chance to check, and if that happens we terminate business with the supplier. What’s important is we want the suppliers to understand the risks of doing that because the problem, if they’re outsourcing their production to someone else, where we don’t know the working conditions are and so on, and that is one of the cornerstones of our sustainability programs, so if a supplier does that, it’s a complete breach to the whole way we think we would like to work.

So we work with the suppliers to make sure they understand this, but we also do different things to check: the production that we place with the supplier, that we have quality control, we have our own audits that go, “This needs to be the same amount that we have ordered that needs to be in the factory,” that they have the capacity to make a product so that we’re not asking them to do embroidery and they can’t do embroidery, for example. So we can cross-check and make sure what we say is actually being produced there.

Another really important aspect of that is to have a close dialogue with the civil society on board. I think that’s one of the benefits of working with H&M because we’re quite big, and we have a big local presence.

“I think that’s one of the benefits of working with H&M because we’re quite big, and we have a big local presence.”

And so we have a lot of people working in Cambodia and Bangladesh and China that have a close dialogue with trade unions and civil society and so on. And because we have a public supplier list, we can go to them and say “So, these are the suppliers that we work with; if you hear from anyone else, that production takes place somewhere else, let us know immediately because then we will act.”

This happened a few times and when we found that out we terminated the relationship with the supplier straightaway. But then of course, when that happens, that normally involves other brands, as well.

And so we go to other brands and say, “So we found this out about the supplier, we have taken this action, now it’s up to you to take the action that you need to take.”

If you’re increasing wages, will the prices of clothes increase, as well, or will this be the responsibility of the supplier?

Gedda: When we are talking about increasing wages, that is not something that we will pass forward to our customers. The way we have reasoned around it is that better wages ultimately create better working conditions, and when workers perform better you’ll have better productivity and better efficiencies, for example.

But apart from that, we just think that it’s an important part of being a responsible company, both we and the suppliers. And so taking that cost would be a shared responsibility.

Alpen: We have very clearly communicated that to our suppliers, as well. We have long-term commitments to them and where this process will lead to higher wages, we will be with them.

+ H&M