From fall trends to corporate transparency: fast fashion at Jean Coutu

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.

Rack of sweaters at Jean Coutu

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

Student Life

A more sustainable fashion future

Graphic Jennifer Kwan

In early 2010, the New York Times released a story of a Manhattan H&M store caught red-handed disposing of unworn clothes, most of which seemed intentionally slashed and torn to avoid reuse. The clothes were packed in garbage bags and thrown to the curb.

This incident left consumers aghast and caused H&M to reevaluate their green footprint and become a little more socially and environmentally responsible. In 2011, H&M launched the Conscious collection, which is made from sustainable fabrics including organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel, a fabric made from wood pulp and processed in a closed-loop production which releases no toxic materials into the environment.

Vanessa Paradis, French actress, model and singer, is the new face of the 2013 Conscious collection which is full of optimism for the spring with romantic styles, sporty shapes and tropical prints. However, the most exciting part of the collection is that is coincides with the Conscious garment collecting program, an initiative that seems just as optimistic. Starting in February, customers can now bring any unwanted garments from any label to selected H&M stores, such as the downtown Montreal H&M, and in return for each bag, they receive an H&M voucher.

The H&M Conscious garment collecting program has partnered with I:CO, short for “I collect,” whose mission is to get heavy hitting retailers to help create sustainable consumption by participating in the environmentally friendly sorting and reuse of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing.

Turning old into new has become somewhat of a trend, especially in Montreal given the number of vintage clothing pop-up shops. Fashion icons like Gwen Stefani and Amanda Seyfried are all known to rock eco-conscious clothing such as garments made with low-impact dyes and organic cotton.

H&M is definitely keeping with the trend in their effort to encourage garment return, preventing clothing from going to landfills and as a result, increasing unnecessary air emissions, residual and water waste. According to the CEO’s message in the 2011 Conscious Actions Sustainability Report, Karl-Johan Persson stressed that “H&M’s target is to use only sustainable cotton by 2020,”  by tackling challenges of “climate change, working conditions, wages at supplier factories and the long-term availability of natural resources” that affect all fashion retailers worldwide.

Given H&M’s size and global reach, it will hopefully inspire other retailers to get informed on how they can contribute to sustaining the environment. Les Oubliettes owner Daniel D’Amours is devoted to recycling and giving new life to vintage clothes. “Being conscious is the mission behind Les Oubliettes,” said D’Amours. The company is a great example of how you can still keep with the trends while shopping second-hand.

D’Amours agrees “there is so much waste,” however, hopefully the upcoming H&M campaign “will inspire people to change the way they think and shop.”

Our levels of consumption and waste probably figure higher than we can imagine, however, there are ways we can still help sustain a healthier environment, even in the fashion world!

Exit mobile version