H&M CEO Talks Bangladesh Safety Reform, Using ‘Too Skinny’ Models

H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson (Getty)
In the past year–and, especially these last few months in the wake of the recent Bangladesh factory tragedies–fast fashion retailers have been facing immense pressure from consumer and labor groups to become more socially and environmentally responsible.
So Metro caught up with H&M CEO Karl Johan Persson to ask him all the hard questions about the brand’s business practices–and whether it was about factories in Bangladesh or overly-skinny models, Persson didn’t shy away from giving the honest answers.
Persson made clear that, while H&M signed the Bangladesh Accord, they did not use the factories involved in the tragedies. He added that H&M has its own system in place to ensure worker safety: 100 full-time inspectors who make regular visits, both announced and unannounced, to H&M factories.
And he wants you to know that buying more expensive clothes isn’t a guarantee that they’re produced responsibly.
“[It]’s a common misperception that cheap brands use certain manufacturers and expensive brands use others,” Persson said. “We’re one of 30-40 companies buying from many of our suppliers. There are apparel companies that charge their customers low prices, medium prices, and high prices. The workers’ pay is the same regardless of which company is buying.”
The ideal in Persson’s mind? Special tags for clothes made in responsible factories. “Then you’d remove many of these misperceptions that low store prices mean bad conditions for the factory workers or poor sustainability work.”
According to the CEO, it would be “complete chaos” if H&M attempted to pay the factory workers making H&M clothes more than the others in the same factory; they are working with the government on finding a solution that works for everyone. In fact, Persson says that H&M has convinced the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to raise the minimum wage there–twice.
Persson also tackled the issue of underweight models–something that’s been a hot topic since Julia Nobis covered T magazine. He says that, as a large company with omni-present advertising, H&M has a serious responsibility to reflect the diversity of their customer base. Persson says he doesn’t think they’ve “always been good,” and admits that “some of the models we’ve had have been too skinny.”
However, he does note that they actively seek out a diverse group of models, including women of different ethnicities and weight.
“I believe that the models in our advertising should look sound and healthy,” Persson added. “There are models who’re too thin or obviously underweight, but there are also those who’re just thin, and they’re the ones we should keep working with, as long as they look sound and healthy.”
Ultimately, Persson’s goal is for H&M to be as socially-conscious as possible. “I want to feel proud today and when I leave H&M and look back at what we’ve done,” he says.
“I want to feel that we were the just company regarding our social responsibilities: caring about the environment, choice of models, social issues.”