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Can Fashion Fight AIDS?

Corporate social responsibility—the trendy tide of good works ranging from helping the poor to saving the planet—often marries strange bedfellows. The clothing giant Gap is now involved in the fight against HIV, Wal-Mart sells tons of disposable plastics but is trying to go green, and Coca-Cola is collaborating with the World Wildlife Federation. While it all seems like a fashionable step in the right direction, sometimes it can be hard to tell whether companies do good works because they really care about a social or environmental problem or because they want to seem like they do.

The cynic in me looks to the latter. Making consumers think your brand is somehow doing good, even when your company really isn’t, is akin to putting lipstick on a pig: you can dress her up, but at the end of the day she’s still rolling in the muck. Many companies have tried to look pretty for the public, while remaining quite ugly underneath. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the crude giant started pouring money into environmental programs, but it’s clear that it was its reputation Exxon was really trying to save. The tobacco industry sponsors youth anti-smoking campaigns while simultaneously trying to get them to take up the habit. And big pharma may be providing antiretroviral drugs at low cost now, but only after immense pressure from the public and international community. When you consider the amount companies spend on touting these “responsible projects”—with glossy handbooks, commercials, and press releases by the PR team—it goes to show it is sometimes just about the show.

It may be easy to see past this egregious type of corporate hypocrisy, but what about the portion-of-proceeds type giving? In the retail sector, many companies donate a portion of their sales from particular items to a good cause. This seems like a win-win situation: it helps the consumer feel good about their purchase, and provides sustainable funds for a social or environmental cause that would otherwise not have them. But the real motive behind such programs is obscure. Perhaps they are ultimately just a great way to sell more stuff, without helping, and perhaps contributing to, the underlying cause of said problem.

For instance, I recently received news of H&M’s new “Fashion Against AIDS” clothing line. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from this line will go to YouthAIDS, Population Services International’s HIV/AIDS prevention initiative. The H&M t-shirts, designed by artists, musicians, and fashion leaders, have messages like “stop and think” and “wear a condom.” All garments from the H&M line carry a special tag that reads: “This might be the most important piece of clothing you’ve ever had your hands on.”

Like Product Red, which donates a portion of proceeds from the sale of numerous items to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, linking donations with consumables presumably gives developed world shoppers the ability to conveniently raise funds for people in the developing world. Part of me wants to believe that buying an H&M T-shirt will help prevent new cases of HIV, but another part of me had to do as the shirt asked: stop and think. After all, the root causes of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis are not merely viruses and bacteria; as evidenced by the countries most affected by them, the root cause is poverty and lack of resources. America’s love of cheap goods and the demand that it puts upon the countries making those goods has not helped the economic inequalities that contribute to widespread disease and suffering. Not to mention our first-world consuming habits have largely contributed to global warming, the burden of which will be most heavily felt in resource-poor areas. H&M, with numerous items under twenty dollars that don’t last more than a season, is a prime example of our disposable culture.

When cute clothes come super cheap, can they still save lives? Or, are they contributing to conditions that foster inequality? I wondered if H&M uses sweatshop labor, which puts those most at risk for new HIV infection—women and girls—in compromising and poor working conditions. My first hunch was yes—most clothes that seem too cheap to be true really are. As it turns out H&M, like GAP, has been implicated in some sweatshop labor scandals. One of their suppliers, Gokaldas Export, was found to have paid wages to factory workers that failed to meet their basic needs and fell short of the minimum international labor standards set out by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). Poor working conditions are something H&M is aware of but actively tries to redress. In their 2005 corporate social responsibility report, they note that they face problems—falsified documentation of working hours, excessive overtime, and lack of employee rights—in factories in multiple countries. While they continue to monitor these factories and look for solutions, they admit that “the underlying idea is that our suppliers need to assume ownership of and consequent responsibility for improving their own organizations.”

To me, this shifting of responsibility seems like a complicit endorsement of poor labor practices. Perhaps their good will donations are just a way to appease critics—no one wants to pick on companies that give away large sums of money to good causes. But small amounts of good can distort the larger problems that superstores like H&M propagate. In his book Supercapitalism, Robert Reich, a professor at UC Berkeley, takes a swipe at CSR, arguing that it diverts attention away from real policy changes that would truly address global problems—such as establishing fair wages, cutting down on consumption, or ensuring human rights. And it seems to give us a very American way of solving a problem—just throw money at it. Remember when George Bush told us if we love our country and wanted to fight terrorism, we should go out and shop? To me, the ridiculousness of this statement is just as silly as thinking that buying a T-shirt is a personal contribution to solving HIV.

All that said, companies certainly don’t owe it to anyone to be philanthropic. After all, it’s not the job of corporations to give away money; their job is to make it. Even if it’s for PR purposes, companies voluntarily giving away funds can raise awareness of an issue, bring in more money than would have otherwise been possible, and create change. Product Red has donated over fifty-seven million dollars to the Global Fund so far and continues to bring in more and more corporate sponsors. Although it’s had some backlash—a site called buylesscrap contends that shopping is not a solution to human suffering, and that we should donate directly to organizations—most people don’t just donate at will. They might however, buy a shirt from H&M.

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