H&M probably spends more money on diplomacy than DFAT does. The charm offensive from the Swedish clothing giant was in full-swing in the weeks leading up to the debut of their flagship Melbourne store.
"This is a very special opening for us," said head of design Ann-Sofie Johansson. Because there is nothing Australians like more than feeling important on the international stage, like other countries are paying attention to us.
Neither is there anything more Australian than to enlarge things beyond any reasonable need. While our European friends make do with smaller houses, cities and H&M stores, the first Australian store is a behemoth. One of the biggest in the world, Johansson proudly told us.
But there is a darker side to the fast fashion so exactingly merchandised by H&M.
The retailer, whose Chairman has a personal wealth of USD$28 billion, has "committed" to paying the employees of its suppliers in Bangladesh and elsewhere a "living wage" by 2018. They've even made a lovely little graphical "roadmap" demonstrating their commitment.
To be fair, H&M was one of the first retailers to support change in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, signing the safety accord very quickly. But the shadow of fast fashion looms large, begging the question why it took the death of 1,129 Bangladeshis to have an accord for a "living wage" in the first place. The current wage system can best be described as neither living or dead - an un-dead zombie wage if you will.
This is nothing new. Very few consumer products can be purchased where someone somewhere in the production chain has not been exploited. One need only mention names such as Foxconn, Nike or even home-town sports ball manufacturer Sherrin for cases of child labour and worker exploitation.
Cheap labour is integral to many of the products we use daily, including the computer I am typing this on (the keyboard a notable exception, Made in USA). It is also an extraordinarily complex issue with massive ramifications for both developed world consumers and developing world workers.
Looking at the queue of mainly teenage and twenty-something girls queuing rain, hail and/or shine around the GPO, it's easy to understand why consumers ignore or forget the issues of a living wage. After all, if we don't really give a stuff about our own people living on the poverty line, why the hell would we care for them foreigners?
Less forgivable is the cheer-leading "journalism" from the city's major chronicles. The Age has given page after page of gushing copy over the course of days covering the H&M's Melbourne opening, much of it reading like an H&M press release. I didn't catch what 150 2-3 syllable words the Herald Sun was using to describe the opening. They were probably no less effusive, if a little more elementary.
Even that online and sometimes-print publication Broadsheet (whose notional raison d'être is the independent designers and fashionistas of Melbourne) gushed uncritically:
The old GPO, once home to small retailers, has been transformed into a single store, 5000 square metres in size, from which H&M will sell its wares...Two enormous floors of wall-to-wall clothing, cosmetics and homewares are on offer, ensuring Melbourne will have the full H&M range at its fingertips.
What happened to those "small retailers" who used to retail their own range in the GPO? Dunt know. Dunt care.
It was left up to those un-Australian "latter-day Trotskyite" traitors at the ABC to raise concerns about "fast fashion", albeit in the context of the competition to local retailers rather than the social impacts of an un-dead wage. Still, a little bit of questioning is better than the manicured press releases everyone else produced.
Damn. Why do those latte-swilling inner-city elites always take everyone else's side except Australia's?