M.I.A. Teams With H&M on Recycling Clothes, but Activists Aren’t Impressed

The socially conscious artist and the retailer want people to donate used clothing, but critics say fast fashion is all about consumption.
H&M; M.I.A. (Photos: Mike Mozart/Flickr; YouTube)
Mar 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Drone strikes, 3-D printed guns, the struggles of Syrian refugees, and materialism—those are just a few of the socially conscious topics rapper M.I.A. has tackled in her songs and videos over the years. Now the singer and rapper is lending her human rights credibility to fashion retailer H&M. They’ve teamed up for a campaign tied to World Recycle Week to get consumers to donate used shirts, skirts, or pants instead of chucking them in the trash.

The effort seeks to get shoppers to collectively bring 1,000 tons of old clothing into their local H&M stores starting April 18. According to a statement from H&M, M.I.A.—real name Maya Arulpragasam—will release a new music video on April 11 that will turn the spotlight on the amount of clothing sitting in landfills around the globe. The video will feature a new song from M.I.A. with an environmentally conscious recycling theme, Pitchfork reported.

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As for folks who haul items to be recycled into H&M stores during World Recycle Week, they’ll be given a coupon for 30 percent off a future purchase at the retailer. The effort builds on H&M’s garment collecting campaign, which has, since 2013, amassed about 25,000 tons of old clothing from shoppers. What happens to the items they bring in? “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fiber, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” according to the company’s H&M Life blog.

Except, maybe not.

“H&M’s recycling efforts are extremely commendable if we consider them in a vacuum without any larger sense of context as to who the retailer is and the practices upon which its business model is based,” Julie Zerbo, the New York City–based founder and editor of Fashion Law Blog, wrote in an email to TakePart.

Zerbo, who has become an influential voice on sustainability in the fashion industry, is among the critics who call H&M’s various sustainability efforts greenwashing.

“I am a bit disappointed that she would position herself with a fast fashion retailer,” wrote Zerbo of M.I.A.’s involvement in the campaign. Often, fast fashion means the health and safety of workers is overlooked, regardless of attractive PR campaigns fronted by cool spokespeople.

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“Yes, recycling is important, but in my opinion, ensuring that laborers are not working in buildings that are catching on fire, for instance, which occurred in an H&M supplier factory in Bangladesh just last month, needs to be the priority,” Zerbo said.

The early-morning fire in February at the Bangladesh factory could have killed as many as 6,000 if it had occurred later in the day, when the building would normally be packed with workers. An inspection of the facility in 2014 by the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety found that safety basics such as fire alarms, sprinklers, and adequate fire doors were missing.

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The alliance was founded in partnership with nearly 30 American companies, such as Sears, Target, and Walmart, after the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, a disaster that killed more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500. That year, Sweden-based H&M was the first company to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

In a sign of the lax enforcement of new safety measures in the South Asian country, a report issued in January by the Clean Clothes Campaign, which seeks to improve working conditions in the garment industry, found that “all but one of H&M’s strategic suppliers remain behind schedule in making repairs and that over 50 percent of them are still lacking adequate fire exits.” H&M did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.

Zerbo keeps updated lists of companies producing ethically sourced clothing alternatives on her website. She noted that the retailer could show its support of sustainable, ethically produced fashion by making clothing designed to last. “It would begin to offer consumers clothing of higher quality in order to avoid the need for the constant consumption and discarding that leads to truly deplorable environmental impact of clothes going to landfills around the world,” she said.

In the United States alone, people generate roughly 25 billion pounds of textile waste per year—everything from clothing to bedsheets. A staggering 85 percent of it ends up in landfills, according to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling.

“But H&M’s business—at its core—depends on this model of consumption. If consumers really were to shop more sustainably, to buy less throwaway fashion and hold on to garments for longer, H&M would be out of the market, and thus, that is simply just not in its best interest,” Zerbo wrote.