Surely the year of Sociopathic Baby Men, 2017 was also the year of pathetic apologies. From random Jay-Z quotes to omitting the actual words “I’m sorry” and implying sexual harassment is fun, misogynistic men (and their lawyers) demonstrated a profound inability to discern between self-absorption and remorse.
And as 2018 began, it appeared the trend would continue. On Jan. 8, H&M came under fire after a product shot on the Swedish fast-fashion brand’s UK site used a black child to sell a hoodie that says “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
As Marc Bain explained in Quartz, the image was seen as disgracefully racist. Singer and songwriter The Weeknd, who has collaborated with H&M on a fashion line tweeted that he was “shocked and embarrassed” will no longer work with the company. Drummer and producer Questlove used an Instagram post to write, “all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something…wanna take a guess?” Others questioned whether the advertisement was an embarrassing instance of cultural ignorance, given how the racial history of Sweden differs from that of the US.
Responding to the internet’s rage, H&M swiftly apologized—kind of.
“We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top,” H&M’s PR representative said in a statement sent to Bain. “The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States.”
Many people were not satisfied with this apology—with good reason. The hoodie was still being sold on its UK site, Business Insider reported. What’s more, this initial apology commits one of the most egregious apology errors: Instead of sincerely apologizing for creating and promoting an offensive product, H&M apologized for “offending people with this image.” The subtle difference between saying “I’m sorry for what I did” and “I’m sorry if you feel badly” is profound.
As Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based relationship psychologist who works with couples and families, tells Quartz, “Even if they’re well intentioned, saying phrases like ‘I’m sorry if you feel like I was mean’ or ‘I’m sorry if you feel angry,’ will not work because they minimize the other person’s feelings and experience.”
Instead, McCance advises following “I’m sorry” with genuine expressions of remorse, and phrases like “I can imagine you’re so disappointed.” Most important, make sure “I’m sorry” includes clear and specific examples of what, exactly, you are sorry for.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ alone is fairly empty. It’s just a hollow statement that doesn’t do much for the giver or the receiver of the apology,” Joanne Lescher, a certified non-violent communication facilitator, tells Quartz. “If you are really sorry, maybe it’s because you regret your actions or words, because you’ve seen how whatever you said or did impacted the other person. So you should continue your apology by saying something like, ‘I regret that I said X because I see how deeply it impacted you, and how hurt you are by my words, and that wasn’t my intention.” Apologizing with your regret is deeper and richer than “I’m sorry,” because it shows that you see how much you hurt the other person, she says.
While removing the hoodie from the US site is a step in the right direction, H&M’s first apology essentially equates to: “Ugh, we’ll take it down, but we don’t regret it.”
No statement can reverse H&M’s ill-informed advertisement. However, as public figures and companies continue to issue flailing, seemingly fake remorse, the progress H&M demonstrated in their second apology is worth learning from.
Yesterday (Jan. 10), H&M sent that longer apology to its media list, opening with the stark statement: “Our position is simple and unequivocal—we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry.” After explaining its full commitment to addressing societal issues such as diversity and environmental protection, H&M admitted “we clearly haven’t come far enough. We agree with all the criticism that this has generated—we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists.”
This second pass, which can be read in full below, models the most essential element of an apology: taking full responsibility for your actions, and not attempting to justify the ways in which your wrongs may have been right. “First and foremost, it’s really important to avoid explaining the reasons behind what you did,” McCance tells Quartz. “There are always reasons behind behavior, but laying out these reasons can come across as excuses. If you do this, the other person will feel like you aren’t sincere and don’t get it.”
H&M also put action behind their words, removing the hoodie from sale everywhere and committing to recycling the remaining stock. “If the apology doesn’t have that following piece of ‘what I want to do differently,’ then the person may not ever change their behavior,” Lescher says. “Until you take responsibility for your behavior, and create a plan of action on how to improve, most of us fall back into old patterns.”
To all customers, staff, media, stakeholders, partners, suppliers, friends and critics.
We would like to put on record our position in relation to the image and promotion of a children’s sweater, and the ensuing response and criticism.
Our position is simple and unequivocal—we have got this wrong and we are deeply sorry.
H&M is fully committed to playing its part in addressing society’s issues and problems, whether it’s diversity, working conditions or environmental protection—and many others. Our standards are high and we feel that we have made real progress over the years in playing our part in promoting diversity and inclusion. But we clearly haven’t come far enough.
We agree with all the criticism that this has generated—we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists. We appreciate the support of those who have seen that our product and promotion were not intended to cause offence but, as a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities—and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time.
This incident is accidental in nature, but this doesn’t mean we don’t take it extremely seriously or understand the upset and discomfort it has caused.
We have taken down the image and we have removed the garment in question from sale. It will be recycled.
We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in future.
Racism and bias in any shape or form, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable and need to be eradicated from society. In this instance we have not been sensitive enough to this agenda.
Please accept our humble apologies.