Don’t Fall For the New H&M Campaign
A new breed of feminism has been rearing its big, beautiful head. The fourth wave has swept in on the tides of the internet the last decade, and though it isn’t yet as defined or action-based as its older sisters, it is more inclusive than them in nature and diverse in its messages. As well as traditional feminist issues like unequal pay and domestic violence, fourth-wave feminism tackles a new host of problems, from online misogyny and slut shaming to campus rape and the rights of women in developing countries. It’s also marked by a strong emphasis on the body positive movement, particularly the reclaiming of female bodies, which is fucking awesome considering how much razor heads cost these days.
The movement is championed by Millennials who, thanks to the multitude of platforms the web has spewed forth, can communicate with and express themselves to a limitless following. Prominent artists like Filthy Ratbag and Frances Cannon use their drawings to spread the message. Creatives like Big Dumb Pissbaby and social influencers like Adele Labo do it by exercising control over their bodies. In an even bigger spotlight, there’s Nakkiah Lui, Lena Dunham, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Emma Watson – the list goes on.
Then there’s H&M.
About two weeks ago, the Swedish multinational brand released the video for its autumn 2016 Collection. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here. The ad is set to a (particularly glorious) Lion Babe cover of Tom Jones’ ‘She’s a Lady’ and features a wealth of phenomenal women challenging stereotypes of what it means to be ladylike. Muay Thai boxer Fatima Pinto admires herself in a little black dress, hairy-pitted model Arvida Bystrom reclines in a bed, musician Jillian Hervey picks her teeth in a restaurant, model Iselin Steiro sits spread-legged on a train and business mogul Pum Lefebure chairs a boardroom meeting. A shaven-haired Casja Wessberg, 72-year-old model Lauren Hutton, trans model and actress Hari Nef, Gurls Talk founder Adwoa Aboah and plus-sized models Paloma Elsesser and Katy Syme also play a role.
The media, of course, exploded.
Predictably, dunny-roll tabloid The Daily Mail wrote about the campaign video’s “wobbly bottoms” and “far from demure scenarios”, but the Sydney Morning Herald, TIME, the Huffington Post and Pedestrian TV applauded the clip, some going as far as to call it “stunning” and “awesome” and all giving the multinational corporation a wet-dream’s worth of free publicity. The Twitterverse was equally stoked.
the h&m commercial is a masterpiece. im a 5’4 asian thick-thighed girl with braces, but im still a lady. a goddamn beautiful one.
— gisele bundt cake (@hautearmani) September 16, 2016
The new H&M #ladylike campaign is an absolute game changer, so much love
— Tara // (@immabeahippo) September 19, 2016
But while the video is undeniably fabulous, there is one looming problem. It’s an ad. It’s an ad that, at its core, is designed to promote the idea that H&M stands for something great. By championing an empowering feminist ethos, the retailer hopes to sell the shit out of its latest range and make consumers feel good about themselves when they buy it.
According to a spokesperson for H&M, “The latest campaign celebrates diversity as well as inspirational women from various backgrounds, encouraging women around the world to embrace their personal style and take pride in who they truly are and what they stand for.”
But H&M doesn’t stand for women.
Earlier this year, a report compiled by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that the fashion giant was routinely exploiting its supply staff. Based on 251 interviews with garment workers, the report alleged that employees from 11 out of 12 Cambodian supplier factories claimed they had witnessed or experienced employment termination during pregnancy. It also claimed that every single one of the 50 staff surveyed in India said that women were often fired when they fell pregnant. In a predominately female industry, this is a colossal problem, particularly when coupled with the workplace sexual harassment that was also reported as commonplace.
Heck, H&M doesn’t stand for basic rights in general. Syrian refugee children were recently found working in its factories in Turkey, and last year’s Human Rights Watch report into Cambodia’s garment industry found factory staff were not allowed to refuse excessive overtime, but were not paid any overtime wages. Speaking of income, despite the Fair Wage Method project that H&M initiated in 2013 and rolled out to 20 of its factories in Cambodia, staff in the south-east Asian nation are still earning below the stipulated industry median of $178USD per month.
As for its purported stance on diversity and body positivity, one look inside a H&M store will tell you that’s puffery at best. Plus-size models may have rocked their bods in the autumn vid, but most H&M stores don’t even stock a plus-size range. Sydney’s Pitt St store is one of many without a plus-size department, and this month, every New York store pulled its plus-sized garments from its floors because, according to a H&M spokesperson, they don’t have room for it. Actually, come to think of it, maybe the plus-size models in the ad were only wearing underwear because they couldn’t find any H&M clothes that fitted.
So I guess what that H&M spokesperson really meant was We sat down with advertising agency Forsman & Bodenfors to discuss what would help us sell our latest range of cheaply-made, poor-quality clothing. We settled on feminism and body positivity, because we’ve noticed it’s trendy and popular at the moment.
H&M doesn’t care about women. They do not care to muddle the feminist message in their campaign with affirmative action in their garment factories. They just want to capitalise on the idea of empowering females in order to sell their clothes. But feminism isn’t a trend to be enjoyed for autumn 2016, nor is it a privilege that is only supposed to be accessible to women who can afford to shop. It’s a longstanding commitment to equality in both the developed and developing world.
And another thing. Though the reach of H&M’s campaign is incredible (the video has already clocked more than two million views) and the conversations it has spawned make it a welcome catalyst for female-centric dialogue, girls, come on: we don’t need an unethical multibillion-dollar apparel company to tell us that it’s okay grow our armpits out and order hot chips for dinner, just like we don’t need our soap telling us we’re beautiful a la Dove’s #choosebeautiful campaigns. Greatness of the video aside, H&M will exploit anything to make a sale – just ask the women who work in its factories. I’m not buying it: the sentiment or the clothing.