Since the scandal, the parents of the child featured in the image have publicly stated that they don’t believe the ad was racist, and the company has taken several actions, including hiring a diversity leader and issuing a public apology that was featured at the top of its website.
But the recent controversy is not H&M’s only dirty laundry. The Swedish apparel company has been rocked by scandal several times before.
Upon releasing an assortment of faux-feather headdresses in Canada, H&M received several complaints that the product was offensive to Canada’s First Nations aboriginal peoples, as reported by the Guardian in August 2013. Some took to Twitter and other social media platforms to criticize the company — and others like it in the fashion industry — for cultural appropriation.
The company quickly removed the accessory from their annual summer music festival collection but did not issue an official apology.
In November 2015, H&M South Africa was accused of racism because of how few black models were featured in their advertisements. In tweets, H&M South Africa responded that “H&M’s marketing has a major impact and it is essential for us to convey a positive image. We want our marketing to show our fashion in an inspiring way, to convey a positive feeling.”
The insinuation that white models conveyed more of “a positive image” added fuel to the fire. H&M responded again with more tweets, insisting that “we have worked with many models from various ethnic backgrounds in our campaigns.”
Amid the fast fashion fad — in which companies buy more cheap clothing to keep up with ever-shifting trends — the world’s clothing waste is growing. And H&M (as well as companies such as Zara and Forever 21) is arguably one of the largest faces of the fad. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American disposes of 70 pounds of textiles every year, and textile waste makes up 5 percent of the average landfill.
In 2010, the New York Times discovered an H&M in Manhattan was slashing what appeared to be never-worn clothing and simply throwing it out. H&M did not respond to the report.
In April 2016, H&M began its World Recycle Week, during which the company refurbishes used clothes. The company also launched a “Conscious” collection in 2012, which is clothing made using more sustainable practices and recycled materials.
To keep up with a worldwide desire for fast fashion, companies such as H&M have turned toward producing large volumes of their product in Asia. The 2013 Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Bangladesh, which resulted in more than 1,100 deaths, uncovered the life-threatening labor conditions inside these retail factories.
In response to the tragedy, Walmart, Gap and H&M were among the companies that vowed improvements would be made to the factories. But by 2016, a slew of reports showed they were failing to fulfill those promises.
Human rights group Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) released a report in 2016 that documented the sexual harassment and low wages persisting at factories, including H&M’s. The international coordinator of the alliance told the New York Times in 2016, “At this point, we do not see H&M working in a way that would prevent another Rana Plaza.”
According to a research report from the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, almost all workers at H&M’s platinum and gold suppliers in Cambodia who were interviewed for the study said they had observed, on average, two to four workers faint every month.
H&M also launched a Fair Wage Method project in 2013, pledging to raise their wages to a “fair living wage” by 2018 but failed to explain what that actually means. No exact hourly rate was ever released by the company, and the announcement is no longer available on its website.
After protests regarding wages and working conditions in Bangladesh, labor rights groups said authorities were detaining innocent protesters to frighten workers at H&M plants into remaining silent, the New York Times reported in 2017. In a statement to the Times, an H&M spokesman said they did not plan on switching suppliers.