A factory of an H&M subcontractor in Cambodia
On Friday morning, I received an unusual email from the H&M clothing brand. It mentioned a recent episode of a French television news show, “Envoyé Spécial”, in which journalists investigated the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. Nothing out of the ordinary — except that I wasn’t meant to receive this email. A public relations officer for H&M had sent it to me by mistake. In other words, H&M had just sent me, unwittingly, a summary of its internal discussions on the French news report…
On Thursday night, "Envoyé Spécial", a show broadcast on the public TV station France 2, featured a special investigation on the Rana Plaza tragedy. Rana Plaza was a building in Dakha, Bangladesh, that housed a number of workshops where garments were made; the building collapsed on April 24, 2013, causing over 1,000 deaths. The catastrophe was widely covered by the international media and cast a negative spotlight on Western clothing brands that rely on cheap, underpaid labour.
I had also produced a report, along with Pierre Vaireaux, on garment workers’ woes, though in another country: Cambodia. During our investigation, we had reported on the grim working conditions and very low salary of the Cambodian workers that produced H&M clothing. The brand refused to meet with us, though we exchanged several emails with a PR officer named Anna Eriksson. She is the person who sent me this recent email by mistake.
The email I received was addressed to “Julian”. It was probably sent to me in error because I have a similar name (thanks, autofill!). I received the whole email chain between Anna Eriksson and a PR specialist based in Paris named Julien Ariès. The headquarters had requested that the Paris office watch the France 2 report, which H&M knew it would be mentioned in, and then to monitor reactions on social media.
Following the report, the Paris-based PR representative contacted headquarters in Stockholm to assess the report and its impact. Julien Ariès conceded that the footage in the France 2 report was “really tough”. He also specifies that H&M was mentioned and that an H&M label was shown in the rubble.
The PR officer appeared to be relieved that the label cannot be linked directly to the Rana Plaza. He writes: "They show an H&M label on the floor ensuring that it was in the Rana Plaza ruins (which we can't see exactly, so not a proof)".  
“We can’t see the label exactly, so it’s not proof”
He also noted that discussions on social media regarding the report do not mention H&M specifically.
“There is no direct mention of H&M on social media”
The email exchange ends with Anna Eriksson telling her Parisian colleague that, if necessary, he can respond to media requests by mentioning that, even though H&M never worked with any of the garment factories in Rana Plaza, the brand has decided to donate to the fund established to help victims of the catastrophe “for humanitarian reasons”.
This email exchange does not provide any new information on the Rana Plaza incident. H&M never recognises being present at Rana Plaza. And yet, its PR representatives are relieved that France 2 did not show “proof” that H&M was producing clothing there.
Whatever the case, this conversation reveals H&M’s extreme vigilance with respect to this incident, which seriously damaged its image, as well as how it monitors social networks as a means of gauging public opinion. H&M refuses to grant any interviews on the subject, as we have experienced first-hand, but still spends considerable energy to ensure it is not criticised online.
Ultimately, it’s a spectacular reminder to double-check the recipient field before sending an email. When she realised her mistake, Anna Eriksson tried to “recall” her email. But, clearly, her attempt failed.
Julien Pain (@julienpain)
Journalist for the Observers Direct
For information on the working conditions of garment workers in Cambodia, please see our web documentary.