When it comes to clothing, nothing looks better than a clean conscience.
While pop musicians, mega corporations and social activism might not seem the likeliest of everyday bedfellows, that doesn’t stop clever marketing departments from getting them all under the covers when the time suits them. And why wouldn’t they? The benefits are pretty clear for all parties involved.
Charities and activist organizations are able to get their message out to a broad audience; musicians are able to push a cause they care about, get some positive press and go to bed at night feeling better about themselves; brands are able to show the world that they care about more than just profit.
On the face of it, that seems like a win-win-win situation, but as with so many things in life, the realities are far more complex.
This week is World Recycle Week, an initiative dreamt up by Swedish fast fashion behemoth H&M to promote a more sustainable kind of clothing industry. In what it terms “Closing The Loop”, the company wants to encourage shoppers to return their old, unwanted items to H&M stores, which they will then collect and break down for use in new clothes.
To help spread word of this project, the brand has enlisted an unlikely pair of celebrity spokespeople. Last year it was the turn of punk golem Iggy Pop, who starred in a video foreshadowing the campaign proper, while just last week he was followed by pseudo-activist pop agitator M.I.A., who went one step further by penning an entire new song, complete with characteristically glamorous music video, to push the project to the masses.
Before wading into why I find the latter move so questionable, I must say that, in its defense, H&M has at least made an effort to place environmental concerns on the agenda in recent years. It won the title of ‘World’s Most Ethical Company’ in 2014, awarded by the Ethisphere Intitute, which must count for something (even though its business model is predicated on a pattern of exponentially greater consumption, placing a huge strain on the world’s resources).
Crucially, however, that reputation-boosting award the company scooped conveniently left out one rather large elephant in H&M’s room: labor practices and working conditions. And therein lies the greatest issue hanging over this most recent celebrity endorsement.
H&M has a long history of dubious and controversial practices concerning the treatment of their workers in (primarily) South Asia. Less than six months ago, the Clean Clothes Campaign published a report accusing the company of being way behind in their promise – made after the Rana Plaza building collapse – to improve working conditions in their factories in Bangladesh. A Human Rights Watch study last year noticed similar problems in Cambodia, another country H&M uses extensively for its cheap labor. On top of that, accusations of using child labor are still here to this day, even if the company does report to make some effort to banish the custom.
Why a notoriously outspoken political musician like M.I.A. would associate with a company which such a shady track record on this seems baffling, to say the least, even if it is to promote a technically “unrelated” issue. In an interview with Vogue on the collaboration she seemed at least to acknowledge the discrepancy:
“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. We should discuss them in public and we should have this back and forth.”
So, in M.I.A.’s own words, it’s good that we’re calling out this issue here, because it creates a discussion about it that might lead to change (very noble of her to volunteer for such moral martyrdom). But where exactly do you drawn the line with such a line of argument? It’s like noted vegetarian KRS-One doing a McDonalds veggie-burger commercial and claiming “But if I do this, maybe people will start talking about the industrial cow-farming industry!”
It’s not that I have an inherent problem with musicians and corporate interests joining forces – that’s simply a fact of life in this day and age. Artists are free to endorse who or whatever they please, and opposing that would feel a little like trying to push back a waterfall. But when the artist in question has built their entire image and personal brand on a certain level of political subversion, antagonism and a message of empowerment among repressed peoples, exactly who they choose to align themselves with is important, because they are essentially conferring those personal values to the entity in question.
One run through the video for “REWEAR IT” (which actually opens with the line: ‘H&M featuring M.I.A’, leaving little doubt as to who is in the driving seat here), and it’s clear this is really nothing more than a glorified commercial. In typical M.I.A. fashion, it features an array of young, stylish individuals from a plethora of racial backgrounds, employing them as visual props in one big extended metaphor for “togetherness.”
Yet, looking past such laudable surface sentiment, this glossy, high-profile effort feels a lot like a clever diversion tactic, deflecting unwanted attention away from the very serious issue of workers’ rights towards the “sexier” and more “current” issue of the environment.
For M.I.A – an artist with supposedly entrenched moral principles – to consent to offering up such a smokescreen feels starkly at odds with the message she has peddled as part of her own image as a musician and a celebrity. In her own words, "I hardly ever get approached by corporations or brands. I have this massive 'No' sign on my face." Yet, to choose this particular campaign to make an exception for feels at best an awkward fit – a moment of well-meaning naivety, perhaps – but at worst simply disingenuous.
If you speak out on social issues so vehemently, then collaborating with a company that has a plainly documented poor track record on such matters will open you up to scrutiny (and rightly so). Perhaps it's time for M.I.A. either to tone down her own righteous rhetoric, or recognise that she can't claim one thing with one hand while shaking business hands with the other.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.