Is the H&M x Sabyasachi Collaboration Indian Representation or Exploitation?

LOS ANGELES — Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M recently launched a collaboration with renowned Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. The average consumer may not be familiar with Mukherjee’s work, but for Indians and the greater diaspora, his designs, under the banner of his eponymous fashion house, Sabyasachi, are a source of cultural pride.

Sabyasachi focuses on Indian bridal wear and is best described as a mix of “strong traditionalism” and “subtle individualism.” The brand epitomizes Indian luxury and ingenuity and is a fan-favorite among the Indian elite. There is a strong emphasis on process, which Mukherjee finds intrinsic to Indian fashion. To him, each design is a slowly crafted work of art. 

For Mukherjee and others in the Indian fashion community, the H&M x Sabyasachi collection showcases Indian soft power and is a way to give the Western mass-market a long-overdue introduction to Indian high fashion. It also serves the larger aim of democratizing the industry by making designer and luxury fashion more accessible. In an interview with Elle, Mukherjee said, “If I’m able to create a bridge between my world and the international audience by staying true to who I am and keeping my authenticity alive, this collection becomes symbolic of a more inclusive fashion industry, where designers from India and countries like ours move into the global fray.” 

Selling out within minutes, the collaboration seemed successful. However, it was also met with intense backlash. Twitter resounded with complaints about the high price point and the unrecognizable “overly Westernized” designs. The most profound critiques had to do with the partnership itself.

H&M, as one of the largest fast-fashion retailers, has a notorious track record of labor exploitation and environmental degradation in developing countries, particularly India. Even with its “Conscious” collection, a line made from recycled and eco-friendly materials, and in-store clothing recycling program, they have not made significant strides toward improving their unsustainable practices. 

In terms of labor rights, H&M failed to achieve its promise of paying 850,000 of its workers a living wage by 2018. In the same year, H&M’s supplier factories were named in reports by the Global Labour Justice, highlighting the abuse of female garment workers. Despite its aims to reduce its environmental impact and the launch of its first Higg Index Sustainability Profile this year to promote transparency, H&M is not meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions generated by its unsustainable, fast fashion model. 

Looking at India specifically, the garment sector is the second largest provider of employment in the country, employing over 40 million workers and contributing 7% to industry output and 2% to the GDP. Some work in factories while others work from home, a system created to escape government regulation and international certification agencies. According to research conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, most home-based workers are women and girls from minority or marginalized communities. Roughly one in five home-based garment workers are aged 17 and under. The author of the University of California report, Siddharth Kara, described the workers as “… a powerless population whose vulnerability is directly exploited by the subcontractors who engage them, and the garment industry at large.”

To maintain fast fashion retailers’ rapid production cycles and relatively low price points, workers receive wages as low as $0.13 to $0.15 USD per hour and have virtually no way to report abusive conditions. In large factories, workers are subject to long hours, low wages, unsafe work environments, and child/gender exploitation. The report also found that these fast-fashion companies are aware of the outsourcing to home workers and their hazardous working conditions but have not publicly acknowledged it and let the practice continue. 

Fast fashion also contributes to environmental degradation, with a heightened impact on developing countries. Textile dyeing, for example, is an extremely damaging process and is the second-largest contributor to water pollution, according to the UNEP. Dyeing clothes requires immense quantities of water and chemicals that are subsequently dumped into rivers and waterways. The World Resources Institute claims that over 5.9 trillion liters of water are used each year for fabric dyeing alone; the World Bank has found 72 toxic chemicals present in waterways due to textile dyeing. 

In India, rivers are essential for the livelihood of the majority of the population and hold tremendous religious and cultural significance. Water contamination on such a large scale has created a massive pollution problem in the country. Without potable water, India cannot sustain its largest industry, agriculture, which employs around 58% of the population. Contamination has destroyed local ecosystems, caused significant health problems and contaminated the food supply. 

In addition to textile dyeing, fast fashion creates a cycle of unfettered consumption and waste. Almost 85% of textiles end up in landfills, where they take up to 200 years to decompose. This fuels even more pollution as clothes are burned or release greenhouse gases while sitting in landfills. 

This is not to say that the retailers are entirely to blame. In India’s case, the government fails to uphold labor protection in the fast fashion industry. It has, in fact, benefited from the growing garment sector that is rivaling China’s booming manufacturing economy. The same goes for unsustainable environmental practices, like textile dyeing, which are also rarely regulated or monitored. Nevertheless, continued implicit support of fast fashion retailers, coupled with zero accountability, gives the government no incentive to change. 

Fighting against fast fashion requires a united front between the private sector, government and society. Government regulation and reform will only occur if there is wide-scale public condemnation of the industry. The H&M x Sabyasachi collection was well-intentioned: it sought to display Indian designers and soft power to democratize and diversify fashion. However, until there is equity for the millions of laborers and those impacted by environmentally harmful practices in India and other developing countries, fashion can and will not be truly democratic. 

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Sangeeta Kishore
Sangeeta Kishore is a sophomore majoring in International Relations (Global Business) and French. On campus, she is a member of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity. She also works as a student researcher with the Near Crisis Project and as a research assistant studying global environmental politics. She is interested in international development and political economy, with a regional focus on Africa and Asia.

skishore@usc.edu