I am guilty. While walking towards the supermarket, the windows of H&M seduced me and I stepped into the shop, magically drawn by the soft rhythms pounding from the speakers and the peculiar urge for consumerism. Among skinny long-legged mannequins and elf-like student girls, I lost it completely when I saw a black t-shirt which had “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people” written on it. I had no idea that the designers had such a dark sense of humour because everything about this t-shirt was simply ironic.
What’s feminist about H&M?
I have a difficult time to think about the connection between H&M and feminism. The company provides clothes which target young attractive women in order to make them look even more attractive. There is no empowering element in the sole focus on good looks. While feminists can be sexy and self-confident about their bodies and appearances, this is not what makes them feminists. Looking cute won’t suddenly change who you are and it most certainly won’t make you a feminist. I picture teenage girls who are slipping into clothes like they were an attitude you can change depending on your mood and it is exactly such behaviour which fuels opposition against the pure forms of the ideology.
Pretending to be a feminist because it’s fashionable – and has become fashionable after pop stars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift have publicly labelled themselves feminists – erodes the entire value system of the concept, which is based on the critical view of e.g. the exploitation patterns in capitalism or the objectification of women. Buying a cheap H&M-shirt (it costs 14.99€) is partially part of both aspects. Self-objectification is a dangerous trait which consumers hardly seem to reflect, because the effect of the appearance seems to be the main objective. And this is what fashion companies do – they tell you that your success and wellbeing depend on your looks. Moreover, there is hardly anything critical towards the consequences of modern trade, the value of products and labour when buying cheap fashion. The “H&M Conscious” CSR-campaign has included important steps towards better environmental and social standards, however, it should not be an excuse to rather feel good when shopping instead of reflecting on consumption choices.
Sweatshops still exist
Chances are that a South-East-Asian teenage girl in a close factory sewed this product while working an extra shift. I hope my imaginary sewer didn’t understand English in order to grasp the subtle tragedy of this situation. In fact, up to 90% of the workers in sweatshops are young girls who lie about their age in order to make a living for their families, the monitoring agencies don’t control the criteria and the employees properly. While some may argue that the ridiculous share of the profit margin which garment factory workers receive as their salary is already relatively decent – Cambodia raised the minimum wage for garment workers to 128$ per month – but the question is, which responsibility global players like H&M want to take.
Indeed, most of the factories of the big brands have improved over the last years in terms of security and working conditions and the severe cases of exploitation in sweatshops don’t involve famous fashion brands anymore, but the circumstances are far from what a Western person would tolerate as human treatment. A report by Quartz India from 2015 outlined the poor security measures in Bangladesh’s best H&M factories – in 61% of the cases the company hasn’t created safe fire exits, threatening more than 70.000 employees. Regardless of the gender, I believe that people must have the right to have safe working places, especially if they are working for a company which earns more than two billion Euro annually and therefore would be capable to improve labour conditions. Perhaps the claim on the t-shirt should have been connected to a radical notion that factory workers are people, too. Frankly, there are topics in the framework of Feminism connected to exploitation based on ethnic background and social classes and paradoxically wearing the H&M feminism shirt reinforces exactly what usually would have been criticised: rich (white) girl exploits poor (dark-skinned) girl.
Overused, misunderstood, and sold – what’s left of feminism?
Instead of promoting a message, the opposite has happened. H&M lifted feminism to the fashionable topics which deserve to be promoted and sold. The tricky part about it is that fashions change with every season and therefore the glamour of feminism might be over very soon. Is this the moment when visions die? Overusing ideas and putting them into the wrong context for the wrong purpose (simply profit) might trigger a short rise in attention and the support of so-called “Feminazis”, but afterwards things are likely to go back to normal. And actually, I wouldn’t mind if feminism was pulled out of mainstream again in order to deeply focus on challenges and hurdles which have to be overcome instead of eroding the fragile values.