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H&M

H&M ‘racist’ ad adds to Swedish company’s woes

A racism scandal at H&M is the latest indication of management problems at the Swedish clothing giant, once the darling of shoppers but now struggling to make the switch to e-commerce, analysts say.

H&M 'racist' ad adds to Swedish company's woes
A closed H&M store in Stockholm. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

The fast-fashion group is one of Sweden's largest export brands and industrial heavyweights, alongside Ikea, Spotify, Electrolux and Volvo.

Owned by the Persson family dynasty, it has been listed on the Stockholm stock exchange since 1974.

It has collaborated with superstars like Beyoncé and Madonna, and prestigious fashion houses including Sonia Rykiel, Lanvin and Kenzo have designed exclusive collections for the group.

H&M is one of the most well-known brands in the world, with global brand consultancy Interbrand ranking it the 23rd best known company worldwide in 2017 — ahead of Ikea and fashion luxury goods manufacturer Hermes.

But lately, H&M has struggled to lure shoppers into its 4,553 stores around the world, and has been slow to develop its online offering.

“It's (been) one of the toughest years for H&M,” Joakim Bornold, an economist at the investment bank Nordnet told AFP, noting that the company's stock price has fallen by 35 percent since January 2017.

In December, the group announced a four percent drop in fourth quarter sales from the previous year, to 50.4 billion kronor (5.0 billion euros).

Not only have H&M sales almost never declined, but the drop was bigger than analysts had expected.

H&M, which also owns the brands COS, Monki, Weekday, Cheap Monday, Arket and H&M Home, said in December it would be closing stores, but didn't specify how many or where.

The company will publish its full-year earnings report on January 31st.

“They have failed in describing their vision for the e-commerce business and how they plan to compete with truly digital companies,” Bornold said.

“That, combined with worse sales figures than expected, has affected investors' faith in the company.”

Chief executive Karl-Johan Persson rejects that analysis.

“Our digital strategy is crystal clear. E-commerce, for all our brands, is definitely a part of the company that is going very well and is profitable,” insists Persson, heir to the company founded by his grandfather Erling.

At 42, he has headed the group for eight years. Some observers have questioned whether he'll soon be shown the door, though his father Stefan Persson, the chairman of the board, has ruled out such a move.

As if the company's earnings weren't problematic enough, H&M last week found itself in the middle of a social media storm, accused of racism.

Its online catalogue featured an advertisement of a black boy sporting a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” written on it.

READ ALSO: H&M removes ad after racism accusation

According to Gothenburg University marketing professor Eva Ossiansson, the gaffe is a sign that H&M has lost its Midas touch.

“It signals that the company has problems to cope with, both in terms of how their business should develop with regard to e-commerce and the digitalisation in our society, as well as in their communication,” she said.

The company tried to quash the criticism by apologising and withdrawing the ad and the item from sale. But the damage was done.

NBA superstar LeBron James expressed his anger on Instagram on January 9th, hours after the garment was removed from sale.

“@hm u got us all wrong! And we ain't going for it! Straight up!” James said, including a photo of the same ad but with a crown superimposed on the boy's head, and the text on the hooded sweater replaced by a crown.

“Enough about y'all and more of what I see when I look at this photo. I see a Young King!! The ruler of the world, an untouchable Force that can never be denied!” the athlete said.

Canadian R&B singer The Weeknd, who collaborated with H&M on its spring and autumn collections last year, meanwhile severed his contract with the company.

“In some cases, in order to create a buzz, companies like to stretch their communication and commercials beyond borders,” Ossiansson said, adding: “It's risky.”

Lisa Magnusson, editorialist at Swedish paper of reference Dagens Nyheter, meanwhile played down the scandal, saying people should be more upset about the working conditions of the labourers in Asia who make H&M clothes for pennies.

She noted that if every garment were sold for just three kronor more (0.3 euros), those workers' salaries could be doubled.

READ ALSO: Protests in Johannesburg over 'racist' H&M ad

RACISM

Black people in Germany face ‘widespread’ racism, survey finds

In the Afrocensus, a first-of-its-kind survey charting the lived experiences of black people in Germany, the vast majority revealed they experienced 'extensive' discrimination in almost all aspects of public life.

Dr Karamba Diaby
Dr Karamba Diaby, an SPD politician and anti-racism advocate, carries out voluntary work in his constituency of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

“The results of the Afrocensus indicate that anti-Black racism is widespread in Germany and anchored in institutions,” the authors of the new report said in a press release on Tuesday. “There is no area of life in which discrimination and racism are not extensive problems.”

Though the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had experienced discrimination at least ‘sometimes’ in almost all areas of life, housing was the area where they said they were discriminated against most often.

Just two percent of respondents to the Afrocensus said they had ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ experienced racism in the housing market, compared to more than 90 percent who said they had experienced it ‘often’ or ‘very often’.

READ ALSO: ‘Black lives need to matter in Germany’ New project to uncover racism in everyday life

Experiences with police and security personnel also counted among areas of life where racism was particularly prevalent: 88 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination from security staff ‘often’ or ‘very often’, while around 85 percent had had the same experience with police.

More than 85 percent had also experienced racism in their education or in the workplace ‘often’ or ‘very often’ in Germany. One in seven had lost their job during the Covid crisis. 

According to the report, 90 percent of respondents had also experienced having their hair grabbed, while more than half (56 percent) had been stopped by the police or asked for drugs by strangers.

Meanwhile, 80 percent said people had made comments about the colour of their skin or sexualised comments about their race on dating apps. A vast majority – 90 percent – also revealed they hadn’t been believed when they’d spoken out about racism in the past, or that people had said they were “too sensitive”. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: My experiences of everyday racism in Germany

In spite of widespread discrimination, almost half (47 percent) of the respondents were engaged and active in their community – mostly carrying out some form of social or voluntary work.

First of its kind

Based on wide-ranging data, the findings paint a vivid and concerning picture of what life is like for the one million or so black people living in Germany today.

To produce the report, researchers from Berlin-based Black community group Each One Teach One and Citizens for Europe conducted an extended survey of 6,000 black people from the Africans and Afrodiasporic community to try and discover more about on the everyday lives and experiences of this group. The survey was carried out between July and September 2020. 

It represents one of the first attempts to gather a wealth of quantitative data on this subject, and as such offers some of the first truly scientific insights into anti-Black racism in modern Germany.

“With the Afrocensus, we have succeeded in doing exactly what has long been demanded within the black community for a long time: making the realities of our lives visible within the framework of qualitative, but above all quantitative research,” Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana und Dr. Karamba Diaby wrote in a foreword to the report. 

Diaby, a high-profile politician within the centre-left SPD party, was one of only two Afro-German politicians in parliament when he first took his seat in 2013. He has since become known for promoting political engagement and empowerment within the migrant and black community. 

In January 2020, an unknown gunman fired shots through the window of his constituency office in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in a suspected racially motivated attack. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

Since the Second World War, Germany has avoided gathering data that allows people to be traced by ethnicity as a means of protecting persecuted groups.

However, critics say this approach only works to make the issues faced by these groups invisible. 

Writing on Twitter, Daniel Gyamerah, Division Lead at Citizens For Europe, called for an “action plan for tackling anti-Black racism and for empowering black, African and Afrodiasporic people” and the establishment of advice centres for people facing racism and discrimination.

More research into the intersectional experience of black people in Germany is needed, he added. 

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