The Revolution Starts at H&M: The Ethics of the Morris & Co x H&M Collaboration
By Madeline Ward
“It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do—
First—Work worth doing;
Second—Work of itself pleasant to do;
Third—Work done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.”
William Morris, Art and Socialism
If there were any evidence needed that the Morris & Co we know today has thoroughly departed from the principles of the Morris & Co founded by William Morris in 1886, it would be their recent collection in collaboration with H&M. The collection consists of “strong tailored coats, jackets and trousers, romantic dresses and blouses, cosy knits and coordinating separates” in a number of original and recent Morris & Co prints, including Pimpernel (1876), Snakeshead (1876) and The Brook (2015). It’s cute, if a little tacky, and most pieces can be purchased for under $100. If you’ve ever experienced a burning desire to look like a walking exhibition from the Victoria and Albert museum, this is the collection for you.
Though the collection was released in October of 2018, it hit the shelves of Australian stores in the early months of this year. Creative director of Morris & Co Claire Vallis said of the collection when it was released that “as custodians of William Morris’ original company we keep his legacy alive today through the creation of beautifully crafted fabric and wallpaper collections inspired by our archive and all aspects of his work.”
The concept of keeping William Morris’ legacy alive through collaborating with fast fashion giants such as H&M is a little fraught for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that H&M are the antithesis of the Arts and Crafts movement, on the principles of which Morris & Co were founded and of which Morris was a central figure. The second is that William Morris was a card-carrying, banner making, out and out socialist.
The British Arts and Craft movement began in the latter half of the 19th century in response to the industrial revolution and the advent of capitalism. Aesthetically, the movement referenced folk and pastoral art forms, as well as gothic and medieval motifs. The politics of the movement are inextricable from its approach to design: its proponents sought a return to hand-crafted design, democratising art making in a manner that sought to blur the lines between artist and worker. Almost every element of the British Arts and Craft movement was a reaction to the class politics of Victorian England. As a movement, the Arts and Craft advocated for social reform in the work and living conditions of the working classes, and many of its members, aside from Morris, were prominent socialists.
H&M like to present themselves as the most ethical of the fast fashion giants, and build much of their marketing and publicity around this concept. Specifically, they purport to be the most environmentally ethical of the fast fashion giants, releasing yearly collections of clothes made from sustainable materials and claiming to be moving toward a future where “100% of garments regardless of whether it’s been used once or repeatedly will be used again.” As outlined by Nadia Dawisha of the University of North Carolina, H&M frequently publicise their lofty environmental goals whilst obscuring the reality of achieving them.They may release their yearly Conscious Collection, made from 50% of sustainable materials, but the size of the collection means that their total use of recycled materials is less than 1%. They’ve pledged to use 100% organic cotton by 2020, but in 2017 only 13.5% of H&M cotton was organic. There’s also the small matter that, regardless of how environmentally friendly they are or how much organic cotton they use, the labour conditions of the factories that H&M use to produce their supposedly ethical products continue to be incredibly exploitative.
In 2018, two separate reports into working conditions at factories used by H&M from Global Labour Justice revealed that more than 540 female workers had reported incidents of threats and abuse. These included “acts of violence that include acts that inflicted sexual harm and suffering and physical violence.” H&M have also failed a 2013 commitment to provide a living wage for factory workers by 2018. H&M: fair living wages were promised, poverty wages are the reality revealed that “interviewed workers in India and Turkey earn about a third and in Cambodia less than one-half of the estimated living wage. In Bulgaria interviewed workers’ salary at H&M’s “gold supplier” is not even 10% of what would be required for workers and their families to have decent lives.”
“All this I say is the result of the system that has trampled down Art, and exalted Commerce into a sacred religion; and it would seem is ready, with the ghastly stupidity which is its principal characteristic, to mock the Roman satirist for his noble warning by taking it in inverse meaning, and now bids us all "for the sake of life to destroy the reasons for living”
William Morris, Art and Socialism
Though the problems of misappropriating Morris’ work for capitalist purposes pale in comparison to the issue of the working conditions they were created in, this deeply ironic moment in the history of fast fashion should be used as a spotlight on the exploitative practices of corporations such as H&M, and on the failings of capitalism as a whole. When Morris delivered his lecture on Art and Socialism to the Leicester Secular Society in 1884, was he imagining a future where his explicitly socialist work could be championed by the sacred religion of Commerce? In the factories of H&M, workers are living the reality that Morris so strongly abhorred, all the while making clothes in his name. The Roman satirist has well and truly been mocked.