H&M’s signature baggage

One week ago, H&M opened its doors to Portland. Mobs of people waited hours in line to be the first to browse through their selections of stylish clothing at great affordable prices.

One week ago, H&M opened its doors to Portland. Mobs of people waited hours in line to be the first to browse through their selections of stylish clothing at great affordable prices. And many waited with great anticipation in the months prior to the store’s arrival, excited at the idea of having an H&M set down roots in the city—I was one of them. But today, I find it difficult to support the store. I find it difficult to support slavery.

In its relatively short existence, America has a rather extensive history with tales of both fortune and shame. One triumph that we love to boast is the fight against, and the eradication of slavery in our country. We fought a war over the economic system that relied upon it, and in turn freed a people who suffered its horror and injustice. We like to remind ourselves that America turned away from slavery, that we banished it from our economy, and we truly did—well, sort of.

Make no mistake—America is still a country that relies upon slavery, or at least exploitative labor. Directly or indirectly, we all take part in supporting such a system. One can look no further than the clothes on their back to see proof of this. While it is true that the United States has abolished slavery, all its industry needed to do is look overseas to provide it with cheap exploitive labor.

Child labor can be an extensive topic. It is strange to say, but I don’t always buy into the idea that child labor is bad. In many cultures, maintaining family units where all contribute to the success of the family, child labor doesn’t necessarily equate to cruelty.

On the other hand, child labor that is forced and abusive is a completely different issue, such as that used at the Goldfame textile factory in Cambodia where H&M produces some of its clothing. In 2006, Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, found the factory utilizing ill-fed and undernourished children working away at H&M T-shirts. The newspaper described the working conditions as “near slavery.” To make the H&M T-shirts, the children, usually around ages 14 or 15, are worked until they collapse on the factory floor. Then they are removed to a first aid room to receive an injection before being sent home. The child workers are also forced to pay a day’s wages for this injection.

Factories working with little regard for their workers have continued to produce for H&M since Goldfame was exposed. In fact, last March a factory in Bangladesh was producing sweaters and cardigans for H&M—at least, it was until it caught fire. But since the safety conditions were so poor at the factory, workers were trapped inside as the fire spread. When the fire was finally put out two hours later, 21 workers had lost their lives and 50 more were injured.

The issue has gotten so severe with H&M that Anti-Slavery International, a charity dedicated to stopping slavery in countries across the globe, has made an official demand that H&M cease using portions of its supply chain that utilize slave labor—they specifically cite Uzbekistan cotton used in many of H&M’s products. Though the country claims to have outlawed slavery, that progress was only made two years ago and the country’s cotton industry has been slow to change. According to Anti-Slavery International, Uzbekistan closes its schools each year and forces 200,000 children into the cotton fields for the harvest. The human rights magazine Independent World Report ran an investigation that found that the Bangladeshi factories H&M uses were producing with Uzbekistan cotton.

Retailers such as H&M can commonly claim that they have no control over their suppliers, or that they simply aren’t aware of such conditions. But this is a lofty excuse. The simple fact is that they hold most of the power. Suppliers will follow their lead if they take it—but sadly, many retailers such as H&M don’t want to take any action that could threaten their profit, even at the expense and lives of people.

In the 2005 documentary “China Blue,” we find a Chinese factory owner meeting with a British retail customer. It is clear that the retailer held all the power, setting prices and demanding high numbers difficult for any factory to accommodate. Such a power structure forces factories in poorer countries, where labor is cheap and practices are suspect, to operate unethically in order to meet demand.

I have long admired H&M fashion and prices. I have shopped at the store myself in other cities. But now that the retailer has set its roots down in Portland, I had to consider them as I would any other store—I had to consider where the clothes were coming from and where my money was going.

The money you spend at H&M doesn’t go to the people who strained and possibly even died to produce what you buy. It goes mainly to the company itself—helping to maintain a system of slavery and other ethically questionable labor practices. We may have progresses passed slavery here in America, but other poorer countries haven’t—and that is where your clothes are made. ?