Your next H&M purchase will have a Made in Ethiopia tag

What’s wrong with us? ‘I’m such a shopaholic!’ can be said with pride. ‘A girl can never have too many pairs of shoes’. Who taught us that? Yes she can have too many pairs of shoes. At least those flats that wear out in 6 months.

As for myself, I have had an unhealthy relationship to clothes for years.

If there was an Anonymous Shopaholics group, I would definitely have needed that about 5-10 years back. I have been a maniac shopper.

The disease I was suffering from is called the fast fashion syndrome. And just like consumption of fast food, fast fashion fulfills our needs in the short term, but makes us unhappy and miserable in the long term. The thing is, the craving never stops.

My mother tried to teach me about quality. She really  did. When growing up, we had a sewing machine at home and my mother was an expert in maintaining and fixing clothes. When I was a teenager, she reminded me about the importance of buying quality clothes instead of rags.

But the temptations were too luring.

As soon as I got my first job at the age of 15, I decided to spend my money on clothes. I became addicted.

H&M’s online store became my most visited website. I clicked home dozens and dozens of garments during some of my wildest years. (I have none of those garments left. What does that say about their longevity?)

Most clothes represented a feeling, an expectation. This is the hoodie I will wear while I casually walk to the grocery store on a Sunday. This is the dress I will wear on new years’ eve.

I didn’t realize my addiction until I moved 3 times within 1,5 years and was forced to pile all those clothes in front of me.

They were wrinkly and unraveled. I had no love for them. Yet I’d spent thousands of euros on them.

I threw away gigantic bags of clothes – some of them to garbage cans, some I gave to friends, some of them I recycled, comforting myself with the notion that at least some poor person can benefit from these. No way they did! Who will love a wrinkly party top? No one. Not even that poor African in your mind.

It wasn’t, however, until I moved to Ethiopia that I really realized what a relief it is not to have a shopping addiction.

There’s just so much more time (and money) in life when it does not revolve around meaningless purchases.

My current hometown is the ideal antidote against a fast fashion addiction since there aren’t really any stores to shop in. Ordering clothes by mail is too risky. It once took 2 months for a postcard to arrive.

But living here I am closer to the garment industry than ever before. Since China is becoming “too expensive” for some companies due to rising labour costs, Ethiopia is now becoming the African mecca of the garment industry.

Companies such as H&M, Tesco, Primark, Walmart and Gap are among the first to contract garment makers here in Africa’s oldest independent country.

Ethiopia still hasn’t got anything on China. There are about 100 000 garment factories in China which makes it the worlds’ sovereign leader in the field. In Ethiopia, there are a little over 100 factories. Many of them have just recently opened.

The garment industry has, for a reason, gotten a bad reputation.

Accidents in factories have taken the lives of many underpaid workers, most recently in the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, claiming the lives of over 1000 workers sewing clothes for retailers such as Mango and Benetton.

The main reason for the garment industry to relocate in Ethiopia is that labour costs in this country are very low, about 10 times lower than in China and lower than in any Southeast Asian garment factory.

The average wage per month is something between 37 – 50 US dollars.

H&M, one of the world’s largest retail giants, is however determined to build a responsible garment industry hub to Ethiopia.

According to its statements, it is aiming at creating awareness among consumers that a Made in Ethiopia tag will signal environmentally friendly and pro-labor production.

In order to do this, it has partnered with a socially progressive venture capital group Swedfund. Together they are investing in factories that fulfill high social and environmental criteria, all compliant to ILO (International Labour Organization) standards.

Let’s try and look at the positive aspects of this.

Sure, it is true that for many Ethiopians, the garment industry will provide jobs , albeit low-paid, but still vital entry-level jobs. For many people relocating from the rural areas to urban areas, a job like this might be a lifesaver.

For the country as a whole, a successful garment industry will probably bring it forward towards its goal of being a middle income country by 2025. 

And H&M, to be fair, is among the few giant retailers who are on the road to pay a living wage to its garment workers. (Living wage explained here.)

But what about the negative aspects?

Even after the devastating Rana Plaza accident most retail giants still can’t tell for sure that their garments are being produced in a responsible manner.

The pace in which garments need to be produced these days often results in local factory owners subcontracting the work to other factories. The conditions in the subcontracted factories vary.

Simply put: Although companies like H&M list out the factories in which their clothes are made, they can not be 100 % sure their clothes are actually made in these factories.

The garment industry remains unfair and broken. Its main actors, fashion giants and governments, are not yet taking such full responsibility that would provide a living wage to all workers in the garment supply chain.

And we, The Consumers, try and defend ourselves by saying that having an all-year-round availability of cheap clothes makes fashion more democratic. These days, anybody can afford a style (if a style is wearing a leather jacket the same year everyone else does).

But is this abundance of cheap clothes really making us happier (or classier)? Or does it on the contrary make us, both adults and children, more anxious? What is fast fashions’ contribution to increasingly heavy personal debts and financial problems?

And most of all: What kind of relationship do we have towards our clothes these days?

The numbers are not pretty. Americans for example throw away 12.7 millions tons of textiles each years. That is 68 pounds (30 kg) per person per year. It is easier and cheaper to buy a new shirt instead of having the old one repaired.

Sewing and maintaining clothes are lost skills. Disposable, that’s what our clothes are.

Here’s the thing. I love beautiful clothes. Clothes are a fun way to express ourselves. And I will continue buying them. I will just buy better products.

“But I can’t afford quality” is a simple excuse I’ve been using for years. It is not true. All I would have had to realize is that buying less is the key. And that quality does not equal brands. A Burberry coat does not equal quality. Quality is about the fabric and the sewing.

A cheap product from a fast fashion chain will not be a quality product. Period.

In Ethiopia, there is a long standing tradition of textile and shoe making. It also hosts one of the world’s most responsible shoebrands, SoleRebel as well as many aspiring clothing designers. They can’t compete with giants like H&M. But we can support such handicraftmanship anyhow.

My favourite ethical clothing store in Finland is Yalo. Global favourites are People Tree, Amour Vert, KaightShop, Prairie Underground and Carrie Parry.

What is your relationships towards clothes?

7 thoughts on “Your next H&M purchase will have a Made in Ethiopia tag

  1. Laura, thank you for this post! You have inspired me to buy better quality, starting that evening in New York when we googled ethical clothing stores. I pay more attention to what I buy now, and buy less. Such an important topic! I just went to H&M a while back and seems like their selection of “eco fashion” is increasing. It used to be a small section of the store, now it’s growing. They say they use sustainably produced organic cotton. No details were available, though. I will look into this and see what their promises actually mean.
    Thank you again! P.S I love my scarf from Kaight in NYC. 🙂

    1. Thank you Anna! I am glad I inspired you. That evening in NYC led me to a lot of interesting research on the garment industry and I found some great new ethical fashion brands. 🙂 And I’m happy you love that scarf!! (Kaightshop is on instagram, you should check them out there).

      It’s interesting about H&M’s ethical collection. I think, like you say, the selection is increasing due to rising demand. I am looking forward to seeing H&M’s ethical hub here in Ethiopia, I really hope they make it work and agree on paying living wages to their workers.

      I think you should always ask them about their ethical lines if you get the chance! Apparently at Zara, for instance, they feed in every customer request and comment to their management and they forward that information to the designers.

  2. I’ve been juggling with same thoughts and issues for quite some time now and recently tried a new tactic (well the tactic is old as mankind but apparently I’m learning slowly). Living with low income (low by Finnish standards) led me to a trap called “but I can’t afford anything more expensive”, leading onward to constant second-hand and discount shopping. Second hand is ok as long as it’s for reasonable purposes; buying when you actually need the item and if the item is actually just right for you and will not end up stealing closet space.

    After years of successful “oh such a bargain/let’s see if I find something nice and new”-living I decided to do things differently. I read a really good book about it (Rinna Saramäki; Hyvän mielen vaatekaappi) and even though I was familiar with problems of cotton production and working conditions etc it still worked as a really good eye-opener.

    The thing is, our relationship with clothes IS twisted and faulty. We surround ourselves with relatively cheap objects by volume instead of quality. By saying that I can’t afford to pay more I’m just pushing my relative lack of money to developing countries to people who REALLY don’t have money.

    So, as personal solution I did this; I went through every item of clothing I own. Made three piles; clothes I don’t wear, clothes I don’t wear now and clothes I do wear now. I chose 33 items from the last pile and will use only those during next three months (not my idea, but from here http://theproject333.com/). After that I choose another set and so on. If I live amongst vast amounts of clothes that mostly are ok but will not last well with time, do not fit and can’t be mended, I will most likely support the same behavior in the future as well. On the other hand, by coming to realize that a well chosen set of items is all I need, it will be easier to choose quality over volume. I estimated a yearly budget for new clothes and can now spend it with a bit more wisdom and choose more sustainable clothes.

    1. Thank you Outi for this valuable comment! I share your thoughts. I’ve had that twisted relationship with clothes for years. Like you, I always thought that I can’t afford quality. Instead I bought piles and piles of disposable clothes.
      The good thing is that once the change begins, it is difficult to reverse it! Nowadays when I look into a Forever21 or other kind of fast fashion shop I just see badly sown garments.
      I’ve heard about Project33! So interesting to hear that you tried it out. And I’ve heard a lot about Rinna Saramäki’s book – I will get to read it this Christmas, as guests from Finland will bring it to me. I bought it online. 🙂
      If you haven’t already, I also recommend the book ‘Overdressed’. Was an eye-opener for me.

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