Knowledge of the Supply Chain: Is H&M’s Cotton Ethical? 3

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H&M, a Swedish fashion retailer that’s the world’s second biggest fashion retailer and very popular here in the US, has been making the news a lot recently in Africa, Eruope and the US. As a large, growing company, they looked to source from Ethiopia in 2013. But did they look close enough at the human rights practices of those factories, the origin of the cotton, and the ethics of the land acquisition to grow that cotton? Many are saying no, and the company cannot say for sure whether or not the cotton for their clothes comes from areas subject to land grabbing. Swedish TV4 set out to investigate H&M’s new involvement in Ethiopia, and ECADF Ethiopian News shared the footage on their site for us.

“We are a growing global company and we need to constantly look at how we can ensure that we have the capacity to supply products to all our stores where we have expanded rapidly. We do that as we increase production on existing production markets but also by looking at new ones. This does not mean we will stop buying from existing production markets. We see great potential in Ethiopia, it is a country with a huge development and growth and we see that we can contribute to jobs and reduce the unemployment in the country,” –Elin Hallerby, spokesperson for H&M

H&M is growing indeed and looking to expand where low production costs are possible, which is what brings them to Ethiopia. This is nothing new for Ethiopia, who plans to expand their involvement with the textile and garment industry. The Ethiopian government seeks to revitalize the industry and has a goal of $1 billion in textile exports by 2016. A large factor in their ability to reach this goal involves welcoming large foreign investors like H&M, which is done through offering cheap land and labor, competitive interest rates, and tax breaks from the government. A statement made in the Wall Street Journal by Fassil Tadesse, president of the Ethiopian Textile Garment Manufacturers Association, in 2012 notes that Ethiopia’s textile and apparel exports totaled around $99 million for the 12 months ended in June, up 17% from the prior year. They hope to reach $500 million in these types of exports next year (2014). This may seem like an economic boost for the nation, but at what cost?

Swedish TV4’s investigation uncovers the ugly truth behind H&M’s involvement in Ethiopia. With a company of their size that has already faced scrutiny for buying cotton that is linked to child labor, poor working conditions and forced labor, it’s not hard to believe that a similar injustice could be happening in Ethiopia. They found that although H&M claims that they have made risk analyses of Ethiopia and the store’s approved suppliers in regards to human rights, those documents have not been made public yet. Unfortunately, TV4 wasn’t allowed to see their approved supplier nor were they given information on the origin of the cotton that they use in the Ethiopian factories. What they do know is that H&M has three textile suppliers in Ethiopia: Almeda Textile, GG Super Garmen Factory and MAA Garment and Textiles. Swedish TV4 focused on those suppliers and their practices to see what’s really going on in Ethiopia.

MAA Garment and Textiles is a factory out in Mekele, Ethiopia owned by Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, who stands accused of complicity in human rights abuses. He is the 79th richest person in the world and owns a number of companies, including Saudi Star, which grows rice for export to the Arab world. Unfortunately, Saudi Star is in the Gambella region where around 50,000 people have already been relocated due to land grabs. The government made the decision that the land in which many Anuak people reside would be made available for Saudi Star to invest in, giving the residents no choice but to leave and let the investors take over their land without offering them compensation. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi Star site has seen abuse, rape, violence, killings and other human rights violations.

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excerpts from Swedish TV4’s investigation

Why is H&M supporting a factory run by a man who is connected to human rights violations? Although MAA Garment and Textiles itself is not suspected of land grabs, H&M has not conducted an analysis further down the supply chain to see if the land their cotton is being grown on is a product of land grabbing. With the Ethiopian government pushing for a re-growth of the garment production industry, it is likely that more foreign investment will move into the country and more government-issued land grabs are going to take place. “Not knowingly” getting their cotton from unethically acquired land is not enough. This is definitely an issue that we should keep our eyes on.

If you’re concerned about your clothing being ethical or not, check the label, do some research, and make more informed choices about what you wear. There are a number of resources online that will help you identify ethical clothing and products to purchase, such as this listing from The Guardian. Something to keep in mind with the upcoming holiday shopping season!



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3 thoughts on “Knowledge of the Supply Chain: Is H&M’s Cotton Ethical?

  • Anne Read

    This post is especially relevant today as so many members of our generation shop at H&M, most of whom are unaware of what exactly they’re supporting. Outsourcing is so institutionalized in corporations in our society that it’s hard to find a nationally successful chain that isn’t associated with land grabbing or cheap exploitative labor. Although these corporations claim that it is for the benefit of the countries where they are producing, as it provides jobs, it fails to recognize the small businesses that it destroys and the human rights violations that have been proven to be involved with this industry. H&M is just one example of the hidden atrocities associated with many of the labels that we often represent in our clothing choices. Mass production of cheap clothing attracts consumers and this type of system cannot be overthrown if this is the only price that a large percentage of our population can afford to pay. Awareness needs to be spread about the actual means of production that are involved here-this post is a great way of doing that.