How a trip to the pharmacy opened up a world of questions
I rarely leave the house these days; partly because of the colder weather, mostly because of the deadly pandemic that most people seem to be taking less-than-seriously. One of the stops I absolutely must make, once a month, is to the pharmacy.
One Saturday, I was getting my medication refilled, and regardless of how much notice you give the pharmacy, there’s always a five-minute wait. Those five minutes of limited freedom to roam the aisles, avoiding other bodies and following little tape arrows along the floor, feels like a luxurious return to a somewhat normal routine.
It was in the final corner of the store — behind the snacks, the assorted phone cables available for purchase, and the passport photo studio — that I noticed a clothing display. To someone who hasn’t been shopping in a while, my excitement was palpable. My excitement exponentially grew when I noticed a familiar tag on an item I had been seeking all summer: the perfect knitted vest. To my surprise, it looked like this item had gotten lost along the way to the nearest H&M retail location. How did this cute little vest end up in a Montreal pharmacy?
Earlier this year, several major fast-fashion retailers came under fire as a result of their failure to fulfill their orders to garment factory workers in Bangladesh. H&M was named as one of the major brands with the largest number of postponed or cancelled orders. The retailer was later absolved from this public relations disaster by working to compensate suppliers for finished goods and goods still in production. If finished goods and orders were fulfilled by H&M, why did this vest end up in the bargain clothing section at a Canadian drugstore?
Perhaps part of the reason that H&M remained relatively unscathed by this incident is a result of the brand’s positive public relations campaign about the transparency of the corporation’s supply chains. Following the reporting on the cancelled orders and unfulfilled payments, there was a flurry of articles focusing on H&M’s commitment to transparency of supply chains. This commitment to transparency is part of the brand’s turn towards sustainability, but the company lists a total of 261 suppliers in Bangladesh alone, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific supplier who could have produced this item.
H&M is undeniably a global brand, with production taking place in 40 countries across the globe, and retail locations in most major cities. The company purports a commitment to transparency and sustainability, and is celebrated in the media for its forward thinking approach. What is sustainable about a fast fashion brand with a surplus of goods and a supply chain that includes one in five countries around the world?
It is because of the scale of this retail giant that this goal of transparency is largely impossible. Despite the abundance of information on their website, it is impossible to determine what supplier created this item. The product is not listed on the H&M website, and as a pharmacy, Jean Coutu doesn’t exactly have a system in place for transparency of clothing suppliers. Despite reaching out to the corporate offices of Jean Coutu, I was unable to find anyone who could clarify where this item came from. Still, the familiar little tag makes one thing abundantly clear: the claim that H&M paid for all of its cancelled or completed orders cannot be true.
H&M is ultimately a corporation that prioritizes profit before all else, and the majority of the brand’s corporate social responsibility is a side effect of necessary marketing campaigns and shifting demographics. Late-stage global capitalism is wildly unpopular with many consumers, and as a global retail giant, H&M is poised to be hit the hardest by this social shift.
The company’s willingness to internalize this discourse of sustainability could be interpreted as a step in the right direction, or as a sinister commodification of environmental activism. Ultimately, I think COVID-19 has brought forth the destructive capacity of global capitalism, the ability to destroy business, and the ability to end lives.
It is a testament to western privilege that I am able to write and research an article about the transparency of supply chains, rather than live the reality of being an unpaid labourer struggling to survive on a bag of rice. I am afforded the luxury of aimlessly wandering pharmacy aisles and delightfully discovering a garment that has travelled further than I ever have. A major corporation worth billions of dollars found that they overestimated their seasonal profits and failed to consider the impact of COVID-19 on spending. If H&M is the industry standard for transparency, the company will continue their corporate legacy of empty promises to sustainability.
Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab, photo by Meagan Carter