Leopard förlag, 2016.
Reviewed by Dominic Hinde in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Non-Fiction
Sweden has a well-developed culture of long-form analytical journalism, and Stockholm-based Leopard förlag has led the way in publishing quality nonfiction about both Sweden and the world at large on topics from feminism to the far right. In their anthology of reporting, Moa Kärnstrand and Tobias Andersson Åkerblom focus on the tension between the sunshine world of ethical consumerism in Sweden and the realities of its position as a global fashion powerhouse.
Fashion, argue the two journalists, has always relied on the exploitation of labour. The consumer clothing market has needed to sell cheap and manufacture en masse, and Sweden is no exception to the rule. The difference between the Swedish textile industry of the 20th century and today is that disposable labour is now overseas in China, Burma and Bangladesh. Kärnstrand and Andersson Åkerblom go looking for the faces of affordable fashion, following the supply chains undercover to expose the realities of the people who make Europe’s cheap clothes.
Their journey takes them to polluted Chinese rivers, local government corruption, the disabled victims of a factory collapse in Bangladesh, and back to the PR departments of Swedish fashion giants H&M and Gina Tricot. By connecting the dots they do the painstaking work that the fashion companies themselves rarely bother with, tracing individual pieces of clothing from field to suburban shopping centre.
Nothing in Modeslavar is particularly surprising; it was no secret that the global fashion industry has long engaged in questionable business in developing countries, but the book’s approach is still a sobering reminder that little has changed since offshoring of labour led to allegations of rights abuses in the ’80s and ’90s. Cheap leather cured using chrome pollutes local drinking water supplies, and in China they find rivers stained dark blue by denim dyes. The scandal, according to Kärnstrand and Andersson Åkerblom, is that the same problems have dominated the industry for decades and show little sign of changing.
There are some brighter passages in what is otherwise a heavy-going book, including a pioneering project to produce clothes in south Asia using non-toxic materials, but these are exceptional in a sea of horrific accounts of exploitation. To hammer home the point, the two journalists visit the Wiltshire estate of H&M owner Stefan Persson on a quest to find out where the money ends up, revealing a network of tax-efficient companies and shady connections. Each time they demand answers of the brands involved, they are met by smiling PR officers who feign ignorance.
Though focusing mostly on Sweden, Modeslavar has international significance, not least because in H&M the book is also dealing with one of the world’s largest clothing companies. Clothes may be the subject, but the processes behind the industry are illustrative of the wider problems with global capitalism, where costs and detrimental effects flow south whilst wealth flows north. This is a brilliant anthology of investigative narrative journalism which asks serious questions about the compatibility of Nordic consumerism with human rights and social justice.