H&M is known for its low, low prices. In its sale section right now, you can find blazers and sweaters for $10, tank tops for $3, and T-shirts for $4. The clothes might not hold up as well as more expensive gear, but a lot of people don’t care. The clothes are cheap enough that if something falls apart, you just throw it away and buy a new one. But the prices could be getting a smidge higher in the future as part of the company’s move to improve conditions in the factories where its clothes are made.
In November, H&M announced its Fair Living Wage policy. It said “all textile workers should be able to live on their wage,” and it has a goal of raising the wages of more than 850,000 textile workers by 2018. And that’s fantastic, but the money has to come from somewhere. On Monday, H&M’s head of sustainability, Helena Helmersson, told AFP higher prices in H&M stores “might be a possibility.” There’s no immediate plan to raise prices, but it could happen in the future.
The announcement is likely to bring mixed opinions. People like the idea of workers making a living wage, but they aren’t necessarily eager to pay higher prices. But in this case I think it is excellent news that the company has acknowledged that higher prices might be necessary to make significant improvements for workers and expressed a willingness to go there if it becomes necessary.
It’s not that I don’t like inexpensive things. I love cheap stuff! The only thing better than cheap stuff is free stuff. But H&M prices will always be cheap. They could raise their prices and still be the cheapest game in town by a fair margin. That $3 tank top won’t suddenly cost $30, and I don’t believe my enjoyment of a $3 tank top supersedes another person’s right to a living wage and safe working environment.
I was working in a theater costume shop when H&M first opened in Chicago. Its low prices made it ideal for dressing large groups of non-speaking actors, so the assistant costume designer was waiting by the doors on opening day. When she showed up with her bags that afternoon, everyone in the costume shop was stunned.
“That’s amazing!” one stitcher said of a cool, trendy T-shirt that must have cost something like $4. But a moment later she frowned.
“God, I wonder what they’re paying their stitchers,” she said.
As a person who made clothes for a living, it was easy for her to recognize that the clothes in the stores are made by people a lot like her. Clothes aren’t kissed together by angels or made by robots, you need people to make them. Because we can’t often see the people who make our clothes, we forget they exist. But they do, and they deserve to be paid a living wage for their work.
Fashionista talked to H&M about the news, and a company rep specified that they’re not anticipating a price increase at this time. In fact, they believe that improving workers’ wages and factory conditions is a long-term investment that will pay off in increased productivity and efficiency in the long-term, potentially without increasing prices after all.
“We don’t think that this strategy will result in a price increase for our customers. It is an investment in our customer offering and will benefit H&M long term. It is important to remember that wages are only one of several factors that influence the sourcing costs and the prices in our stores. We also believe that this will lead to more stable production markets, with better efficiency and productivity. Long term this will be profitable for both us and our suppliers.”
Obviously, that’d be just great. If H&M can pay a living wage and offer safe working conditions and still provide $3 tank tops, I will wear nothing but $3 tank tops for the rest of my life. But if the cheap clothes on the shelves have to be slightly less cheap to improve conditions for textile workers, that’s a small price to pay, both literally and figuratively.
Via Fashionista/Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Nissy-KITAQ