How do you learn ? You make mistakes. This is the lesson Swedish global fashion retailer H&M learnt this last week in New York, when an insightful and bold young lady Cynthia Magnus, a name H&M wont forget for a long time, found discarded bags of unwanted clothes outside H&M's store on 34th Street, New York. Clothes in the bags had been intentionally damaged to prevent re-use - gloves, socks, jackets, shirts - clothes which needy families could derive great benefit from. The story was first reported by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times on Jan 5th, and did not omit to make reference to H&M's statements of commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility. Within hours, cyberspace was buzzing with anger, indignation, scorn, incredulity, cries for boycott, accusations of irresponsibility, analyses, commentaries, tweets and diggs and facebook posts. By Jan 6, Twitter was the number 2 trending topic. And H&M published their response.
A search for "H&M destroying clothes" on Google now brings up over 70,000 references. Actually, bags of discarded Walmart clothes were found too but H&M have born the brunt of the outrage. All major news publishers took up this story. And it seems like everyone had something to say. Here are some more mentions from a variety of sources.
Jan 6, a blog post from DemocraticUnderground.com ... followed by several responses
Jan 6, from NowPublic.com - on the full story
Jan 6, from Jim Dwyer again on the NYT blog - with a follow up and H&M response
Jan7, from the Huffinton Post - with pages and pages of reactions
Jan 7, from the Telegraph.co.uk - on the "storm of protest"
Jan 7, a blog post by WalletPop - retweeted 121 times
Jan 8, from the Mother Nature Network - on H&M's declared intention to donate clothes in future
Jan 9, post from the Party for Socialism and Liberalism - called "capitalism values profits not people's needs"
Jan 10, from Shine on Yahoo - a summary and review of the story
and, funnily enough, a great analysis from the insightful Maya Forstater on how H&M should have responded popped up on my Tweetdeck screen as I write this very post.
H&M has actually come a long way in CSR. They have produced an annual CSR report since 2002, the last one being published in April 2009 covering 2008's activities. I actually reviewed this last report on CorporateRegister.com . All H&M's reports are downloadable from their website, as is their Code of Conduct in 25 languages and a range of other responsibility related materials. The Company has made significant progress in developing sustainability strategy and was one of the first to speak out against Uzbekistan's forced labor and child labor in the cotton picking fields (though I must say that their position is a little ambivalent - "avoid Uzbekistan cotton in their products" rather than definitively banning it. The CSR Manager of H&M, Ingrid Shullstrom, maintains a blog on the H&M CSR home page. As chance would have it, she writes on 29th December, just a few days before H&M hit the headlines, that she will not be posting during January and February 2010 due to extended leave and "should something exceptional happen in the field of CSR during my absence, one of my colleagues might post an update in this column". What impeccable timing. So far, colleagues havent posted an update, but the headline "H&M donates clothes to charity" does appear in bold on the same page. Coincidental, or similar impeccable timing?
Anyway, I wanted to draw attention to a few things:
Folks, it can happen to the best of us... embedding CSR in all levels of the business is a fantastic challenge (see former post about Deutsche Telekom) , and with the best will in the world, someone goofs. No excuse. You have to embed harder. H&M have learnt THIS lesson, now, I bet.
In one of the articles I read on the subject, H&M is now rapidly scrambling to update all their policies and procedures relating to discarding and donation of old clothes. I suspect, so are all of the the retailers that have heard this story. Better late than never, right?
And of course, the power of the social media, and especially Twitter, to act as a catalyst for such a story. This vindicates my previous comment that Twitter has done more for CSR than some of the great thought leaders. Just by getting it out there, just by providing a platform for so many people to have their say, no corporation in today's world can expect to get away without responsibility, accountability and transparency. Either you proactively manage it, or, as H&M found out in this instance, it manages you. When you are on extended leave.
Should heads roll at H&M? No
Should we believe that H&M are an irresponsible retailer ? No
Should we boycott H&M ? No
Should we be outraged at this incident of destruction? Yes
Should we accept H&M's apology and give them time-out to revise their practices ? Yes
Should we be keep a close eye on H&M in the future ? Yes
Should we expect to see this incident reported in H&M's next CSR report for 2009, due out in a few months? YES
And as with everything, good emerges from bad. I suspect that every single fashion retailer will have learnt from this incident, and H&M top of the list.
So thank you H&M, for your mistake , we have all learnt something. And I suspect that the world will be a (slightly) better place as a result.
elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm based in Israel. Visit our website at: www.b-yond.biz/en