H&M Group is under fire after a CNN report Wednesday revealed that one of its brands, & Other Stories, used a racial slur to name a beanie internally. The deeply offensive name never made it onto any public-facing materials, but was uploaded in July to a product overview system shared with employees, who complained to management.
H&M Group CEO Helena Helmersson released a statement apologizing for the incident, calling it "totally unacceptable and should never have happened."
"It is a serious breach of our policies and goes against everything we stand for. We take the use of racially offensive language extremely seriously," she said, adding that "simply taking action on one occasion is not enough." Helmersson reiterated steps H&M Group is taking internally to address racism within the company, including mandatory conscious and unconscious bias training to all employees and greater oversight over images, products and accompanying products, among other measures. (You can read the statement in full here.)
Additionally, the company told CNN that the Paris-based team and managers responsible had been suspended while the company investigates how exactly this happened. Which, yeah, how does something like this happen?
According to anonymous employees CNN spoke with, it all stems from company culture, especially in European offices, which still aren't very diverse, they allege. While the company has reported diversity numbers for U.S. stores and offices, it doesn't do the same for European ones, citing regulations. Employees described another incident, where a "vision board" from the Paris office sent out to hundreds of designers featured a 1700s-era slavery image featuring a black man kneeling, with his hands and feet tied up in chains; it was reportedly used as inspiration for calligraphy.
H&M Group told CNN that while it has put a number of workshops, trainings and partnerships with predominantly Black schools into action in the U.S., it has not done the same in European branches, which is where these issues seem to stem from. This is despite the fact that this isn't the first time the company has come under fire publicly for a racist product description: In 2018, the global retailer infamously published an ad featuring a Black child wearing a sweatshirt with the text "coolest monkey in the jungle," which, following backlash, prompted H&M to appoint Annie Wu to a Chief Diversity Officer position.
Wu very clearly condemned the beanie incident to CNN, saying she hopes whomever was responsible for the name is terminated following the investigation. She also acknowledged that European countries approach diversity differently than in the U.S.: "A lot of people have taken trainings, but culture is also very difficult to change in a short amount of time. This has been historically a Swedish company. And we are now shifting over to being a global company, but that won't be changed just by training alone, that has to do with how we also expose ourselves to different cultures, to different people and how we really include them in everyday conversations."
In a statement provided to CNN, & Other Stories said it was "committed to a safe and inclusive workplace," and it would launch an in depth, mandatory unconscious bias training plan in the fall for all staff, strengthen internal controls of images, products and text and improve diversity metrics without giving specifics.