The first thing South Africa’s country manager for Swedish clothing retailer H&M did after seeing the picture of a black boy wearing the hoodie bearing the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” was shake his head in irritation.
“I felt terrible. I mean how stupid can we be? How did this happen? I have two Indian adoptive sons and would I like to see them in this? No! Are we a fascist company? No,” said Pär Darj.
The controversy saw members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) protest outside and trash H&M stores across the county. In the aftermath, the global chain has made a concerted effort to fix its race and diversity problem, one that started at its launch in South Africa two years ago, with posters of exclusively white models.
At the launch of the Rosebank, Johannesburg, store on Thursday, there were posters of black models in a campaign shot in Cape Town. The company has hired a black marketing company.
This month, Ahmed Kathrada Foundation (AKF) head Neeshan Balton will be in Stockholm, Sweden, to speak to staff at H&M’s head office about diversity and inclusion. Next month, he will address its all-white board.
Balton told City Press yesterday that he wrote to the company when the hoodie scandal broke, but received a “bland” response. The foundation had planned a protest for the following Monday outside H&M stores and had celebrities committed to participate. But the EFF’s protests took place the previous Saturday and theirs had to be called off.
H&M then approached them and a meeting was held at the Swedish embassy with the AKF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR)
“Before that I asked them if they were meeting us because they were scared, or if it was because they knew they had done something wrong which they wanted to talk about. If the meeting was out of fear it would be the wrong thing, but if it was because they knew they had done something wrong, it was a different story,” Balton said.
Since then, the AKF and IJR devised a training programme, initiated by the South African part of the company, which will be attended by the human resources heads of H&M around the world.
“I sensed a level of sincerity not seen in many South African corporates that we have tried to engage with before,” said Balton.
He said they had other conditions, including addressing the company’s decision makers, which they are doing, as well as insisting that H&M work with black South African marketing companies on campaigns for the local market, which they have done.
In addition, Balton has asked that the company look at procuring goods locally. Darj confirmed that H&M will soon meet their production managers from Ethiopia and Hong Kong and the department of economic development to discuss this.
Darj said that this is something the company was keen to look at, provided the local suppliers could produce sustainable garments at the right quality and price.
Balton has asked that H&M put a labour representative from their operations around the world on its all-white board. It currently has one Swedish labour representative on it, “which doesn’t reflect the value of it wanting to be a diverse company”.
“This is something the company is going to have to deal with,” he said.
H&M is increasing its investment in South Africa. It has currently invested R500 million and created about 900 jobs. An additional five stores will be opened in the near future and the investment will be increased by a further R400m in the next two years and an additional 300 jobs created. In addition, the company plans to build its own 12 000m² distribution centre in Gauteng.
Ironically, the offensive hoodie was one of the global brand’s best sellers, said Darj.
How did this happen? Predictably perhaps, racism didn’t cross anyone’s mind.
“They were devastated,” he said. “We thought we were a diverse and inclusive company. We needed to become a better global citizen. The controversy in the short term was bad. But in the long term, very good.”