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LONDON – The recent comments of H&M boss Karl-Johan Persson, in which he attempted to justify the fast fashion business model on ethical grounds, have been described as “cynical” and likely to perpetuate environmental injustice. In an open letter, the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF) also claimed Persson’s comments are “typical for proponents of a so-called ‘new environmentalism’ based on an ideology of green growth.”

Persson recently claimed a shift away from fast fashion will have huge social consequences – an argument based on the fact that so much fast fashion production takes place in poor countries such as Bangladesh, providing millions of jobs.

However, the UCRF is refusing to buy Persson’s attempt to take the moral high ground and claims, from an environmental standpoint, the current growth model is “physically untenable.”

The letter says: “This type of have-it-all environmentalism, achieved through market forces and satisfying growing consumer yearnings, is wholly incompatible with the reality of biophysical planetary limits. Persson suggests that workers would suffer under ‘de-growth’ or ‘don’t buy’ conditions. The reality is that the business model Persson promotes, which is utterly dependent upon extracting, processing and wasting natural resources at increasingly greater volumes, would suffer.

“As environmental degradation accelerates, the same people whose cheap labour and long working hours Persson profits from, will be the victims of climate change and associated problems long before the business leaders. Likewise the ecological habitats affected by environmental degradation are concentrated in countries which bear the heavy impact of industrial pollution.

“The biospheres and local communities in cheap labour countries are typically not safeguarded by either environmental or labour-laws Persson takes for granted when applied to his own employees, family and country. In fact, it would be illegal to produce the goods he does within his home biosphere and country – even though it is not illegal to import said goods. 

“UCRF seeks to further problematize the association between low-cost fashion goods and ‘social consequences’. Fast fashion perpetuates and creates new forms of elitism and divisions including between groups of consumers, where the poorer population is blamed for un-environmental shopping behaviour while an elite, despite being able to afford to make environmentally better choices, escapes the same level of criticism. Yet Persson’s hypocrisy is not uncommon, as fast fashion brands and consumers are regularly targeted and perhaps receive a disproportionate level of condemnation in the current crisis. High levels of in- and out-flow through walk-in closets are deeply problematic, in whichever population they appear.”

Very valid points from the UCRF. For us, Persson’s comments are actually very revealing. They illustrate that, for all the talk on issues of sustainability, this is a business which – when push comes to shove – will be very reluctant to fundamentally change its ways.

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