M.I.A. and H&M’s Collaboration Exposes the Fashion Industry’s Catch-22


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Sustainability Week

M.I.A. and H&M’s Collaboration Exposes the Fashion Industry’s Catch-22

Are star-studded campaigns for sustainability from mass-produced brands only about selling more clothes?

In front of Bedouin tents, on a tower of textiles, in color-coordinated secondhand clothing, dances the British–Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. The beats are heavy, the clothes are trendy, and the message is clear: " Rewear it."

But it's neither spontaneous nor unsolicited that M.I.A., who on more than one occasion has asserted herself through outspoken political statements, makes this message the focal point of the recent track.


The music video, a collaboration with the Swedish clothing behemoth H&M, was part of the brand's World Recycle Week campaign in April, when customers were encouraged to drop off their used clothing at one of 3,600 stores worldwide. Both the video and the recycling campaign have received criticism on various fronts.

To some, it seemed hollow that H&M intertwined its marketing strategy with a message of being part of a global movement to fight climate change, seeing as the company's massive textile production makes it one of the industry's worst climate offenders. Critics described the "Rewear It" video as absurd) and "greenwashing." To the fashion critic Lucy Siegle, the campaign was problematic because it rewarded consumers with store credit for turning over their old clothes, and thereby incited them to purchase more clothes from the chain.

But are star-studded campaigns for sustainability from H&M and other mass-produced brands only about selling more clothes?

If you ask researchers in the field, the answer is largely the same: It's complicated.

Maria Mackinney-Valentin, a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, viewed M.I.A. and H&M's campaign as an example of the industry's catch-22.

"Is H&M a driving force that can really help push the consciousness of the consumers when it comes to sustainable clothing, or are they just sustaining the current problems in the industry, with their very existence being a core part of the issue?" she asked, while pointing out that M.I.A., with her background of championing human rights, was a strong pick to lead the charge.


Mackinney-Valentin said it resonates with customers when stars like Emma Watson grace the red carpet wearing a Calvin Klein dress made of recycled plastic bottles or Pharrell Williams performs in denim pants made from plastic taken from the world's oceans .

"We've always viewed the higher echelons of society, the rich and the famous," Mackinney-Valentin said, "as 'influentials' who pave the way forward for us all — be they the emperors or queens of old or the Hollywood stars of today."

"The stars have always been a way to personify brands," she explained, indicating that it was as hard to ascertain how sustainable Emma Watson's bottle dress was as it was to evaluate the legitimacy of Adidas's and Zara's stated initiative to use less water and fewer chemicals in their textile production.

"Sustainable fashion is an extremely complex issue, because it consists of so many tiers of production, allowing celebrities to act as sort of enlightenment ambassadors," Mackinney-Valentin said.

Wencke Gwozdz, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, highlighted the positive effects of clothing brands collaborating with celebs. "It's important that famous people strike a blow for sustainability," she said, "because we look up to them and they can target specific audiences. For instance, they are able to help raise awareness with younger consumers about more sustainable shopping habits."

"But the celebrity factor is just one of many tools needed to alter our fashion culture," she added, explaining that consumers have grown increasingly aware of sustainability over the past four to five years. "Whether or not a dress or a cardigan is produced with sustainability in mind still isn't of pivotal importance to whether or not the mainstream consumer will buy it," she said.


"The price and appearance of the clothes is still much more of a deciding factor, and it will probably stay that way for a long time," said Gwozdz, who has conducted surveys about clothing and sustainability with consumers in the United States and several European countries.

Fast-fashion chains like H&M, Zara, and Topshop are built on mass production. New clothes and new looks hit stores every week and tempt consumers with cheap shirts, T's, and jeans. In what is referred to as the second-most polluting industry on the planet, the ambition for more sustainability that has surfaced in the past few years has been called paradoxical on more than one occasion.

While H&M is criticized for branding itself as more sustainable than it actually is , however, it's really not that black-and-white, according to Gwozdz.

"Of course it's about marketing and branding," she said, "because H&M is a business that above all wants to make money, and their business model, with its high collection-renewal rate, is anything but sustainable."

"On the other hand, they at least launch green initiatives and raise awareness about the importance of recycling in a time where most consumers still throw their old clothes in the trash," the professor said, emphasizing that billion-dollar companies like H&M have more influence, in the industry as well as with consumers, than smaller designers.

M.I.A. has made a similar argument.


"If all [H&M] do is go and inspire another high-street brand to get in on caring and being conscious, or if H&M gets criticized for any of their factory processes, these are all good things," she told Vogue.com. "We should discuss them in public, and we should have this back-and-forth. At least they're even stepping into the [environmentally conscious] arena. Any of those things is progressive, and I think you have to give it a chance."

Mackinney-Valentin already sees a paradigm shift in the fashion world.

"Consciousness of environmentally sound and ethically responsible production has become more commonplace, which has made sustainability more of a fundamental premise in the industry, and at the same time more binding," she said, stressing that the acceleration of production alongside the increasing awareness of sustainability is a major paradox and issue in the industry.

According to the 2015 documentary The True Cost , 80 billion new articles of clothing are produced every year, a number 400 percent higher than it was 20 years ago.

Like so many others, Mackinney-Valentin points out that the ultimate sustainability initiative would be for the entire fashion industry to just stop producing clothes.

"The world doesn't need any more clothing," she said, "so when production carries on regardless of that, it's obviously because businesses are padding their coffers. But it's also because fashion, historically and today, plays a huge part in the way we express our identities."

This article was paid for by Copenhagen Fashion Summit and was created independently from VICE's editorial staff.