like dust in the wind

Christina Reynolds re­counts her 72-hour whirl­wind tour into the world of fast fash­ion.

ELLE (Canada) - - News -

As­so­ciate art di­rec­tor Elena got messy while shoot­ing our Beauty Trend Re­port

as I pack for a three-day trip to China, via Swe­den, to visit one of H&M’s fac­to­ries, I take stock of my closet. It’s filled with an eclec­tic mix of in­vest­ment pieces, old favourites, sale finds—and a lot of “fast fash­ion.” Ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm TNS Global, 40 per­cent of our clothes comes from “value re­tail­ers.” But since the 2013 col­lapse of the Rana Plaza fac­tory in Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 fac­tory work­ers were killed, many con­sumers—my­self in­cluded—want to know more about the con­di­tions un­der which these gar­ments are made.

To learn more, ELLE Canada ap­proached H&M— which did not make clothes at Rana Plaza but does pro­duce more than 80 per­cent of its prod­ucts at con­tracted fac­to­ries in Asia—to see if we could get a first-hand look at where many of the clothes we’re wear­ing come from. The com­pany read­ily agreed.

First stop: H& M head­quar­ters in Stock­holm

The head of­fice, which is in the city’s trendy shop­ping dis­trict, is lo­cated in the same sleek build­ing as a mega-flag­ship store (and across the street from an­other one). Af­ter be­ing is­sued a se­cu­rity pass, I’m es­corted to a con­fer­ence room to talk with Hen­rik Lampa, the com­pany’s en­vi­ron­men­tal-sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager, and He­lena Helmers­son, global head of sus­tain­abil­ity. The first thing I ask Helmers­son is whether she thinks the Ac­cord on Fire and Build­ing Safety in Bangladesh (which the com­pany was first to sign on to) is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. “The tra­gedy with Rana Plaza, even though we were not a buyer in there, was so huge,” she says. “Be­fore that, we did a lot on fire safety, but ob­vi­ously it wasn’t enough for the in­dus­try. We should have done more col­lab­o­ra­tion—and that is re­ally what came with the ac­cord, in­dus­try-wide,” she says, adding that the con­sor­tium of 170 brands and re­tail­ers aims to do 1,500 in­de­pen­dent fac­tory in­spec­tions in Bangladesh this year. Helmers­son, who worked in Bangladesh from 2006 to 2007 as an H&M hu­man­re­sources man­ager, says the coun­try is “close to her heart.” “Liv­ing in such a poor coun­try was amaz­ing but also very hard,” she says. “It makes you think ‘How can we do more?’” H&M has 20 of its own au­di­tors con­duct­ing 500 or so in­spec­tions a year of the ap­prox­i­mately 300 fac­to­ries it works with in Bangladesh.

All of H&M’s sup­plier fac­to­ries are in­spected and scored us­ing its Full Au­dit Pro­gram, which is based on the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s con­ven­tions and the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of the Child. Ev­ery 18 to 24 months, au­di­tors spend two to three days on-site at a fac­tory to do a “full au­dit.” Us­ing a list of about 200 ques­tions, they look at ev­ery­thing from fac­tory wages, over­time hours, work­ers’ ages and free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion to chem­i­cal han­dling and waste-wa­ter treat­ments. They also con­duct ran­dom worker in­ter­views and re­view fac­tory doc­u­ments to make sure they are au­then­tic. Each fac­tory is then rated on a scale of 0 to 100 on the h

com­pany’s In­dex Code of Con­duct. In 2013, H&M’s av­er­age sup­plier was ranked at 77.8, up from 77.3 in 2012 and 76.5 in 2011.

At about six-month in­ter­vals be­tween full au­dits, an H&M au­di­tor visits for a day or so to see whether sup­pli­ers have made im­prove­ments. “We do these to coach sup­pli­ers in the right di­rec­tion,” ex­plains Helmers­son. “Af­ter three fol­low-ups, we do a full au­dit again.”

The two key is­sues the au­di­tors typ­i­cally en­counter— es­pe­cially in Bangladesh—are over­time hours and waste­water treat­ment. “In China, waste wa­ter is on a good level, but we al­ways have is­sues with work­ers’ rights to free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion,” says Helmers­son. “We can’t work with unions to the same ex­tent we can else­where, but we try to em­power work­ers to do their own ne­go­ti­a­tions and have demo­cratic elec­tions in the fac­to­ries.”

Three hours later—with many more top­ics still to ex­plore—our chat is over and I am head­ing to the air­port once again.

Se­cond stop: H&M head­quar­ters in Shang­hai

Straight from the air­port, we head to one of H&M’s two pro­duc­tion of­fices in Shang­hai. The workspace is packed with cloth­ing sam­ples hang­ing on long closet rails that sag un­der the weight. I’m brought to a meet­ing room for an­other three-hour chat, this time with Leyla Er­tur, the coun­try man­ager for pro­duc­tion; Veronique Ro­chet, the re­gional sus­tain­abil­ity manger; David An­ton­s­son, the wo­ven sup­ply-chain man­ager; and Ap­ple Cao, sup­ply-chain sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager for the wo­ven-prod­uct group, among oth­ers.

Er­tur tells me that the fac­tory I will be vis­it­ing, which is owned and man­aged by Hem­pel China Ltd., was se­lected be­cause it has earned H&M’s “gold” sta­tus, a de­sig­na­tion for H&M’s “pre­ferred sup­pli­ers.” While just 19 per­cent of H&M’s 872 sup­pli­ers have earned this rank­ing, they ac­count for ap­prox­i­mately 60 per­cent of pro­duc­tion and av­er­age a score of 80.1 on the com­pany’s In­dex Code of Con­duct. H&M’s strategy is to re­ward part­ners who are will­ing to im­prove with ad­di­tional or­ders and longer-term com­mit­ments.

“Not all the fac­to­ries are like this,” Er­tur goes on to ex­plain. “This is one of the few fac­to­ries where we have ver­ti­cal pro­duc­tion, so, from start to end, they do al­most ev­ery­thing in-house, even the pack­ag­ing. This is quite rare in China, but it will give us a chance to see dif­fer­ent wo­ven-prod­uct groups.”

Third stop: The Hem­pel fac­tory in Xiaoshan

The next day, we set out on a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Xiaoshan dis­trict, in the city of Hangzhou, to visit the Hem­pel fac­tory. The sun is try­ing to peek out, but the atmos­phere is heavy and grey-brown. The Air Qual­ity In­dex, a rat­ing sys­tem used to de­ter­mine con­tam­i­nate lev­els, is over 201, which is con­sid­ered “very un­healthy.” The high­est level, 301 and above, is con­sid­ered “haz­ardous.”

Shang­hai-based Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher Philippe Roy, whom I’ve in­vited along for the day, tells me that he and his wife have three high-end air pu­ri­fiers churn­ing around the clock in their apart­ment and that there are days when they keep their young chil­dren home from school be­cause the pol­lu­tion level is too high for them to be out­side.

H&M’s 2013 Con­scious Ac­tions Sus­tain­abil­ity Re­port states that the high­est per­cent­age of green­house-gas emis­sions (36 per­cent) in its pro­duc­tion chain is a re­sult of fab­ric man­u­fac­tur­ing. But be­cause the com­pany doesn’t have di­rect busi­ness re­la­tions at this stage of its pro­duc­tion, it says it can’t place de­mands the way it can with its di­rect con­tract sup­pli­ers. That said, it is try­ing to “ex­tend” its in­flu­ence over fab­ric mills and grad­u­ally work­ing to add them to its sup­plier-au­dit­ing pro­gram.

As we exit the free­way, we ap­proach a brick build­ing that looks more like a nicely land­scaped shop­ping mall than a fac­tory, each of its four lev­els fea­tur­ing planter boxes with h

roses. “I’ve never seen a fac­tory quite like this, have you?” I ask Roy, who has pho­tographed a num­ber of in­dus­trial spa­ces in China. “Wow!” he says. “No, def­i­nitely not like this.” Lo­cated in the 218-hectare Hem­pel Fash­ion In­dus­trial Park, this gar­ment fac­tory is one of China’s largest, with 3,500 sewing ma­chines and a pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity of 15 mil­lion gar­ments a year.

Nancy Ko, the thir­tysome­thing pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager of Hem­pel Fash­ion & Mar­ket­ing Man­age­ment, is wait­ing for us. She is also the daugh­ter of fac­tory owner Lit Kwan Che­ung. We head to the board­room, which is just down the hall from the fac­tory floors.

Plates of beans, broc­coli, scal­lops and pork have been brought over from the fac­tory’s can­teen, where the 4,000 work­ers eat. Dur­ing lunch, I ask Che­ung how her fam­ily got into the gar­ment biz. She doesn’t speak English, but Ko, who spent two years of high school in Bos­ton and stud­ied busi­ness and mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, trans­lates.

Che­ung tells me that she and her late hus­band, Chi­wei Ko, started out work­ing in an em­broi­dery fac­tory, but they quit their jobs in 1992 to start Hem­pel’s first fac­tory with a US$400,000 in­vest­ment. Called Hangzhou Huili, it opened with only 80 sewing ma­chines; its first or­der from H&M for 50,000 pieces came soon af­ter. Three years later, the num­ber of sewing ma­chines was up to 200. When I ask what it was first like to work with H&M and what chal­lenges they’ve had, Che­ung tells me about a dif­fi­cult time in 1995, when they had “a very big qual­ity is­sue that caused a lot of prob­lems on the con­sumer side. We paid a lot of com­pen­sa­tion,” she ex­plains, re­fer­ring to poorly sewn cloth­ing.

But H&M didn’t drop the fac­tory; in­stead, it brought in sewing train­ers and taught Hem­pel staff how to im­prove their pro­duc­tion. “This gave us a lot of con­fi­dence; it was a big turn­ing point for us,” says Che­ung. And H&M has con­tin­ued the prac­tice over the past two decades. “We’ve grown to­gether, with good and bad days,” adds Er­tur. “We still have good and bad with all of our sup­ply chain. But H&M’s ad­van­tage has been that we have stayed com­mit­ted to the mar­ket, and that has made a big dif­fer­ence. We’re not go­ing to one coun­try for a big dis­count one year and an­other the next—that has never been our strategy. I think that is why we have had such suc­cess in China.”

Che­ung cred­its H&M with teach­ing them about hu­man rights, so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and in­dus­try trends. “We have learned a lot over the years, and it has helped us grow and ex­pand,” she says. Ko, in par­tic­u­lar, doesn’t just want more work from H&M; she wants to build a com­pany like H&M—Hem­pel al­ready pro­duces three of its own in­house brands and has 200 stores across China.

Next up: From board­room to fac­tory floor

The fac­tory’s four floors are vast and filled with high-tech equip­ment, such as a com­puter-guided cut­ting bed and auto­mated hang­ing sys­tems that move items from one pro­duc­tion sta­tion to an­other. It’s bright—thanks to a gi­gan­tic over­head sky­light—but also very chilly. It’s late winter and the air con­di­tion­ing is off, but I’m told this is the nor­mal tem­per­a­ture.

At iron­ing sta­tions, work­ers are press­ing men’s shirts at seem­ingly su­per-hu­man speeds. We then walk into a sec­tion that has a sign say­ing “Spe­cial Lines for COS” (one of H&M’s other brands), where sew­ers are con­struct­ing a min­i­mal­ist short-sleeved navy dress with black lace trim. This fac­tory spe­cial­izes in wo­ven goods—dresses, skirts, blouses, jack­ets and, es­pe­cially, out­er­wear. (If you have an H&M coat with a tag that says “Made in China,” there’s a good chance it was made here.)

A lit­tle far­ther over, I no­tice an­other sewing line where work­ers are sit­ting by bins marked “Qual­i­fied Goods” and “Call­back Goods.” They are do­ing in­spec­tions and snip­ping threads from slip dresses made from the same silky h

blue fab­ric and black lace as the COS dress— but this time with H&M la­bels at­tached.

This shar­ing of de­signs be­tween brands is per­haps one lit­tle ex­am­ple of how the com­pany keeps its costs (and prices) so low. Back in Stock­holm, I’d asked Helmers­son to talk about the com­mon as­sump­tion that cheaper in-store prices equate with low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions. She was adamant that this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the case, es­pe­cially for H&M. So I asked her to share some of the strate­gies that en­able the com­pany to keep its prices so com­pet­i­tive. “I won’t give away all the big­gest things to the com­peti­tors,” she said with a laugh. “I re­ally think it is a mix­ture of the big vol­umes we have, the lo­gis­tics and the mind­set we have in our com­pany, be­cause ‘cost con­scious’ is one of our seven val­ues. So it is kind of built into our ev­ery day. You know, we do not take taxis; we take the bus in­stead.”

I want to speak with some work­ers, so Ap­ple Cao, who has been with the com­pany for 10 years and whose team is re­spon­si­ble for this fac­tory, of­fers to trans­late for me. Chen Fang, a 28-year-old who has worked here for four years as a sewer, tells me that she pro­duces more than 300 col­lars a day and reg­u­larly works from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. ev­ery day ex­cept Sun­day. “I am very in­ter­ested in the chal­lenge of this job, and I can do other pro­ce­dures too—if I have time, I can help oth­ers,” she ex­plains. “I am happy work­ing here and make friends here.” Three other work­ers tell me sim­i­lar sto­ries, in­clud­ing 31-yearold Bai Ji Hong, who has been em­ployed here for five years and whose hus­band works at a nearby fac­tory while their 10-year-old daugh­ter lives with rel­a­tives. Both of the men I talk to—one works in iron­ing, the other is a Code of Con­duct trainer—have been with the fac­tory since it opened, more than 10 years ago. Their com­mit­ment to the com­pany is a good sign, says Ju­lia Bakutis, a mem­ber of H&M’s sus­tain­abil­ity team. “The cul­ture in China is that if work­ers are un­happy, they ‘vote with their feet,’” she says. H&M has a Code of Con­duct that ev­ery sup­plier must sign. It in­cludes poli­cies on things like work­ing hours, work­ers’ rights to union­ize and min­i­mum wages. But some­times ex­cep­tions are made—for ex­am­ple, un­der Chi­nese law, only govern­ment em­ploy­ees can be union­ized. Also, work­ers are typ­i­cally paid by piece rate (which doesn’t in­cen­tivize em­ploy­ers to prop­erly com­pen­sate for over­time hours), which is not H&M’s pref­er­ence. “We have to work within each coun­try’s sys­tem and try to change it as best we can,” ex­plains Er­tur.

When I ask about the long work­day, Cao an­swers, “This is nor­mal in China.” (The Fair La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ports that an es­ti­mated 50 per­cent of gar­ment work­ers in China work more than 60 hours a week.)

In terms of wages, ac­cord­ing to H&M’s most re­cent data from Hem­pel, the av­er­age monthly wage is CNY3800 to CNY3900, or US$622 to US$640. The min­i­mum wage in this part of China is CNY1650 a month, or US$270. To put that in per­spec­tive, the av­er­age monthly wage for H&M work­ers in Bangladesh was US$64 in 2013, com­pared with the coun­try’s av­er­age of US$42.

In Novem­ber 2013, the com­pany launched the Roadmap to a Fair Liv­ing Wage, a plan to help it em­power fac­tory work­ers to ne­go­ti­ate their own wages

and make sure its largest sup­pli­ers all pay a fair liv­ing wage by 2018. It’s based on a method de­vel­oped by Daniel Vaughan-White­head, a labour econ­o­mist and pro­fes­sor of cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity at Sciences Po in Paris. He is also the man­ager of wages and in­comes pol­icy at the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­ga­ni­za­tion. This year, H& M im­ple­mented a test ver­sion of the pro­gram in three model fac­to­ries: two in Bangladesh and one in Cam­bo­dia. “For us to be able to hit fair liv­ing wages, we need to look at our own pro­ce­dures and rou­tines as a brand, like pur­chas­ing prac­tices,” ex­plains Helmers­son. “But we also need to in­flu­ence and in­cen­tivize sup­pli­ers and em­power the work­ers.” So far in the test fac­to­ries, the com­pany re­ports that the work­ers and fac­tory man­agers have be­gun to create new wage struc­tures ap­pro­pri­ate for each area and that the di­a­logue be­tween these groups has im­proved.

The fi­nal stop on my tour is the staff dorms, which are con­nected to the fac­tory via a raised walk­way. The 1,996 rooms, which house up to 6,000 staff, have bunk beds that sleep four and an al­cove by the win­dow for cook­ing. The rooms are clean but very small and quite dark. I can’t imagine liv­ing in a shared space like this for years. (Al­though the dorms do have pri­vate rooms for cou­ples.)

Bakutis no­tices the un­cer­tain ex­pres­sion on my face and quickly tries to as­sure me that these are some of the nicer dorms she has seen, adding that they’re above the lo­cal in­dus­try stan­dard. But for em­ploy­ees like Fang (who has cal­cu­lated that her walk from dorm to fac­tory takes pre­cisely six min­utes), this fac­tory/ dorm/can­teen is pretty much her whole world, ex­cept on Sun­days. “That’s when I go out shop­ping with friends—with work col­leagues,” she tells me with a big smile.

What’s next: H& M’s ex­pan­sion

plans H&M wants to raise more of its fac­to­ries to Hem­pel’s over­all “gold” level—while also adding sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity that is needed to stock the 300 to 450 new stores it’s plan­ning to add an­nu­ally to its ex­ist­ing ros­ter of 3,000. To ex­pand pro­duc­tion, H&M is now turn­ing to Africa—par­tic­u­larly Ethiopia and Kenya, which do not have sig­nif­i­cant gar­ment in­dus­tries and can be dif­fi­cult places to do busi­ness.

Achiev­ing a liv­ing wage when, for ex­am­ple, the av­er­age salary in Addis Ababa is only US$30 a month, is a chal­lenge. Back in Stock­holm, I’d asked Helmers­son about these plans. She em­pha­sized that the ex­pan­sion into Africa is not re­plac­ing any pro­duc­tion cur­rently be­ing done in other parts of the world. “We want to make sure that our pres­ence has a pos­i­tive im­pact on these coun­tries,” she said. “We’ve learned so much from be­ing in Bangladesh and Cam­bo­dia— whether that’s chem­i­cal han­dling, wages, over­time or wa­ter treat­ment. We can de­mand a higher level from the be­gin­ning from our sup­pli­ers.”

Back home As I un­pack my suit­case in Toronto, I’m still think­ing about the com­plex chal­lenges of pro­duc­ing vast amounts of low-cost cloth­ing. There’s clearly a lot of ef­fort be­ing made to im­prove the process. As the world’s se­cond-largest ap­parel com­pany, with US$2.64 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue last year, H&M cer­tainly has the fi­nances and in­dus­try pull to bring about change. So let’s hold them ac­count­able for all the prom­ises—and all the po­ten­tial. n Go to el­le­ for an in­side look at H&M’s de­sign depart­ment in Stock­holm. Also: Read about the Cana­dian-owned Pure Hand­knit gar­ment fac­tory in Thai­land.

The H&M store next to the com­pany’s head of­fice in Stock­holm; a coat from the fall col­lec­tion

Hem­pel’s staff dorm (far left) houses up to 6,000 peo­ple; a worker at one of the 3,500 sewing sta­tions

Fac­tory owner Lit Kwan Che­ung (right) and her daugh­ter, Nancy Ko


An H&M slip dress ready for in­spec­tion at the Hem­pel fac­tory

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