H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson on anorexic models, Bangladeshi factory workers

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of global fashion retailer H&M. Credit: Urban Brådhe/Metro Sweden
Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of global fashion retailer H&M.
Credit: Urban Brådhe/Metro Sweden

Life is going swimmingly for Karl-Johan Persson, H&M’s young, handsome CEO: Despite the global recession, the cheap-chic chain is doing well. But the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh has put H&M in the spotlight – even though it, as Persson points out, didn’t use the factory. But in an exclusive interview with Metro at H&M’s headquarters in Stockholm, he proposed a new solution: a tag added to every piece of clothing informing the customer whether it was made in a safe factory.

Has the recession harmed H&M, or has it instead benefited you because people have turned to cheaper clothes?
When the whole apparel market diminishes it affects H&M as well, but at the same time I think more people discover H&M in times like these because they start questioning their clothing purchases. In general, too, people want a good look with a good quality for a low price, and that’s what H&M offers. And our attitude is that we always want to improve our offering, not just maximize profit. We’d been able to get a bigger profit if we charged somewhat higher prices and lowered the quality, and if we hadn’t invested many million dollars in sustainability, but this is a way for us of giving back to the customer, and that increases demand.

What’s your attitude about expensive brands? Are they an inspiration or an example of irresponsible extravagance?
There’s much to be inspired by on the design side, and we’ve collaborated with several of them, like Karl Lagerfeld and Viktor & Rolf. But when you look at the price-quality aspect, I don’t always think they’re very impressive. They have very high margins.

There’s a lot of debate about anorexic models right now. Shouldn’t H&M introduce curvier models? If it did, both consumers and the fashion industry would listen…
We have a huge responsibility here. We’re a large company, many people see us, and we advertise a lot. I don’t think we’ve always been good. Some of the models we’ve had have been too skinny. That’s something we think a lot about and are working on.

We want to show diversity in our advertising and not give people the impression that girls have to look a particular way. By and large, I think we’ve succeeded: We’ve many different kinds of models from different ethnic backgrounds. In our last campaign we had a somewhat more buxom model, and now we’re having Beyoncé, who’s a bit curvier as well.

I believe that the models in our advertising should look sound and healthy. There are models who’re too thin or obviously underweight, but there are also those who’re just thin, and they’re the ones we should keep working with, as long as they look sound and healthy. We can get more disciplined, because sometimes there have been mistakes.

If you were to go to the fashion industry and say: “We’ve introduced more buxom models, and you should too,” would they listen to you or laugh?
It’s hard to say. It’s possible that we can help make a change, but this is a huge industry. In some cases there are models where we say, “H&M doesn’t work with such models.” So we’re not blind to the issue. But I have to be honest and say that some of our models have been too skinny. That’s not OK.

So will you become more involved with H&M choice of models?
We’ve talked a lot about it here at H&M. I say, healthy model, always! And everyone here feels the same way.

Perhaps the change in public attitudes towards too-skinny models is similar to the growing interest in sustainability, which companies are now acting on, too?
Customers care about these issues, and that puts pressure on us as companies. It’s not just about maximizing profit; you have to do it in a fair way, too. I want to feel proud today and when I leave H&M and look back at what we’ve done. I want to feel that we were the just company regarding our social responsibilities: caring about the environment, choice of models, social issues.

Last month a clothing factory collapsed and killed more than 1,000 workers. Now H&M, the biggest manufacturer of clothes in Bangladesh, has signed an agreement where you agree to help your Bangladeshi suppliers pay for safety measures. Are the factories safe now?
The factory collapse was horrific, but our code of conduct bans use of factories in residential areas, so this was not an H&M supplier. But we’ve been working to improve conditions in Bangladesh for a long time. You can never be 100% sure. Accidents happen in Sweden, too.

We already have 100 full-time inspectors who travel around to our suppliers to make sure they adhere to our code of conduct when it comes to building safety, fire safety, wages, overtime pay and so on. Our inspectors make thousands of announced and unannounced visits every year. The major change with the agreement is that we join up with other buyers, with trade unions and with the government.

But isn’t the problem that people want cheap clothes? Then it will never make sense for a company to use better factories.
Yes, but it’s a common misperception that cheap brands use certain manufacturers and expensive brands use others. We’re one of 30-40 companies buying from many of our suppliers. There are apparel companies that charge their customers low prices, medium prices and high prices. The workers’ pay is the same regardless of which company is buying.If you look at an H&M top for SEK 99 and then look at one in a different chain that costs SEK 999, many people think, “These workers are much, much better paid.” But their pay is the same.

What’s interesting is not the price of the clothing item but what the company does. Don’t trust everything you see and hear in the media, don’t look at the prices. Maybe I sound cocky, but I dare promise that no apparel company in the whole world does as much as H&M. I don’t think customers have that image.

The best in the world, what does that look like regarding factory workers? Pesticides?
We have a long list of chemicals that we ban from our clothes. We’ve signed the new plan for building and fire safety in Bangladesh. And through our code of conduct we demand that workers are paid the wages they should have and also get overtime pay. We’re also involved in the social dialogue and educate workers about their rights, for example through a project with the Swedish metal workers union that teaches factory workers the Swedish model. And we try to influence decision-makers. I was recently in Bangladesh and spoke with the prime minister about increasing the minimum wage.

How did she respond?
We’ve already asked for it twice and they’ve raised it both times, and now it looks like they’ll raise it again. It’s perhaps not just thanks to H&M, but it shows that they’re listening to us. But the prime minister’s comment was also that she has to consider all the companies that might move to other countries if Bangladesh raises the minimum salary. The textile industry in Bangladesh employs four million people, and these people have gone from having no jobs to having these jobs, so of course many are afraid of losing them.

I often hear that H&M should pay higher wages on its own. But in a factory with 500 workers and 30 buyers, of which we’re one, it would be complete chaos if we give the 20 workers who sew for us during a certain period higher pay. So we have to find a model that’s sustainable for the workers, the factories and the country. I’d love to find a model where we can pay more as long as it’s sustainable for the country, like Fair Trade. But it’s not an easy nut to crack when you consider the country’s competitiveness and the fact that other companies have to be willing to do the same.

But couldn’t consumers play a role here? If clothes that are made in safe factories with decent minimal wages had a special tag I, as a consumer, would know exactly what to buy and wouldn’t need to read companies’ sustainability reports.
That would be the very best. Then you’d remove many of these misperceptions that low store prices mean bad conditions for the factory workers or poor sustainability.

Are you going to promote this idea to other apparel companies?
I’d love to sit down with other companies and find a model for this. I can say here and now that H&M definitely is interested in participating as long as we can find a sustainable model. I think we’ll have that kind of Fair Trade-designation in a couple of years. But it has to work for the country itself as well. We can’t sit in the spectator stand and say that worker wages should be quadrupled in Bangladesh.

How often do you wear H&M clothes?
Very often. The majority of my wardrobe is H&M.



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