Why H&M's William Morris Campaign is Inherently Problematic

When you hear the name William Morris, what tends to come to mind are his beautiful prints; winding floral tapestries in muted colours that evoke the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time to another era. Well over a century later his legacy still lives on, with his designs possessing a certain timelessness.

What you may not know about William Morris, however, is that asides from being a textile designer, he was also a poet, novelist and social activist- with a strong association with the Arts and Crafts Movement. This beauty that so delicately transcribes itself through his art, transcends way beyond the physical, reflecting his utopian ideals and outlook towards life.

One thing that disturbed Morris in particular was the industrial mode of production which had begun to emerge and flourish. The Arts & Crafts movement which he was strongly associated acted as a retaliation to this; encouraging people to learn and develop traditional craftmanships such as painting, embroidery, and textile dyeing. The idea was that in doing so, individuals would not fall captive to the modern day factory, isolated to a single point on a factory line with no means of development. Rather, they could use these skills to eventually become autonomous- setting up their own shops as an independent craftsman and so on.

Now fast forward to the 24th of April, 2013. A structural failure in the Rana Plaza- an eight storey commercial building in Bangladesh manufacturing garments for brands we could all find hanging up in our wardrobes- resulting in the collapse of the building. 1138 workers were killed. Another 2500 were injured. It’s now classified as the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. Lying amongst the rubble and human loss, were the labels of highstreet shops waiting to be sewn into garments.

The fashion industry used to consist of four seasons a year- winter, spring, summer and autumn. Now, with more lines and collaborations than ever, we average on roughly 52 micro-seasons of new releases per year. What used to be a human necessity, to clothe oneself, has now transformed into a multi-trillion industry with no evidence of slowing down. An entirely disposable one at that. The number of clothes worn once or twice whose fate lie in landfills isn’t slowing down either.

And yet what many don’t realise is that our spending habits come at a vast humanitarian, social and environmental cost.

Despite obvious cracks in the building, workers in the Rana Plaza were forced to re-enter and resume work in order to complete production targets set by western retail companies. I’d like to be able to say the Rana Plaza was an isolated event. A fire sweeping across the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh killing 117, wages as low as $1 a day for garment workers, and the volume of water used annually by the fast fashion industry equivalent to 32 million Olympic swimming pools; the facts speak for themselves. All it takes is a quick google search to understand the magnitude of this industry’s consequences in every sphere.

And now, walking down Oxford street are these enticing William Morris designs beautifully displayed in windows. Looking beyond the pretty prints, there’s something disturbing about this particular H&M collaboration; a sort of conceptual incongruity that no-one seems to be talking about and one that I can’t quite digest.

William Morris emphasised the idea that the design and production of a product should be bound together. He insisted on the use of exclusively raw materials, natural dyes and drew inspiration from the divinities of the natural world which he wished to protect. I wonder what he’d make of his designs being mass produced by an industry which seems to be at odds with so many of his ideals. I dread to think.

There are obviously a multitude of questions about corporate social responsibility that come into play here; for example, why is the fast fashion industry not doing more to address what has become such an unethical and unsustainable mode of production? Or why have Morris & Co decided to completely disregard their predecessor’s ideals for nothing more than what I can imagine is monetary gain?

But with clothing items hanging up in my wardrobe from these very brands I suppose I’m just as responsible.

Maybe as consumers we’re just so used to looking at clothes through window shops that we’ve lost our ability to really see them at all.