Monday, April 23News That Matters

H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 are locked in an arms race for customers — and there could be big consequences


monkey hoodieH&M used an image of a young black boy to advertise a hoodie that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.”H&M and XIBash/Twitter

  • Fast-fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 are facing increasing pressure to speed up their supply chains to compete with online stores for customers. 
  • Prioritizing speed can mean fewer checks and balances. It’s one of the reasons that clothing with potentially offensive slogans or images can sometimes slip through the gaps.
  • Both H&M and Zara have introduced new systems to prevent these incidents from happening. 

The race to bring a product from the design board to stores and online has intensified in recent years.

The former pioneers of fast fashion seem like dinosaurs in today’s world as newer online companies such as ASOS, Boohoo, and Misguided swoop in and cut their supply-chain processes down to as little as a weekLast week, UK-based retailer ASOS said it would be investing more in technology and logistics to be able to continue staying ahead of the curve. Similarly, a supply-chain overhaul is at the forefront of H&M’s 2018 strategy. 

But while getting the hottest trends into stores as quickly as possible may be a top priority, it’s also leaving fast-fashion retailers vulnerable to error. 

Prioritizing speed means fewer checks and balances, Adheer Bahulkar, a retail expert at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney, told the New York Times.

“When you have two hours to approve a line versus two months, things go unnoticed,” he said.

In January, H&M came under fire for using an image of a young black boy to advertise a hoodie that bore the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” on the front. Singer The Weeknd, who had a collection with H&M, tweeted that he would be cutting his ties with the company. 

“Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore,” he tweeted at the time. 

H&M apologized and later removed the item from its website.

“We completely understand and agree with his reaction to the image. We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken, and we also regret the actual print. We have removed the image from all our channels and the sweater is no longer for sale in our stores. We will also look into our internal routines to avoid such situations in the future. We will continue the discussion with the Weeknd and his team separately,” H&M said in a statement to Business Insider.

While these incidents are still rare relative to how many products are churned out by fast-fashion retailers, they are not infrequent

Zara shirtZara removed its $22 “Sheriff” shirt from its website and stores in 2014.Zara

Zara has come under fire several times for creating potentially offensive products in the past. In 2014, many said that one of its t-shirts resembled a Holocaust prisoner uniform. 

“Zara doesn’t want to bore the customer. The customer loves new things,” Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail industry consultancy Davidowitz & Associates, told Fortune in 2014. “When you’re in that kind of environment, some crazy things slip through.”

Retailers are now coming up with new ways to prevent these incidents from happening but rarely say that the pressure of fast-fashion production cycles is to blame. 

According to the New York Times, Zara’s precautions include an algorithm that scans its designs for potentially offensive features. The retailer has also hired a committee of diversity officers and made diversity and inclusion training mandatory for all employees. 

H&M has taken similar steps recently. In the wake of the hoodie saga, it appointed a diversity and inclusion team that includes employees from different departments of the company. 

Annie Wu, the company’s global leader for diversity and inclusiveness, explained in an interview conducted by H&M that the mistake with the hoodie came down to the retailer being too centralized — rather than a lack of checks and balances. 

“We must admit that there is some truth in the fact that we have maybe been too centralized and that we need to challenge ourselves in an open and constructive way to get everyone, everywhere to be more culturally sensitive, racially aware, and more critical of how the outside world might see what we do,” Wu said.

“We have a very diverse workforce and we have always thought about ourselves as being a leader in this area,” she added.

H&M did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

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