In the early 2000s, a small miracle seemed to happen. Cool clothing started getting cheaper — way cheaper. Suddenly, the latest fashions didn’t seem like such a pricey gamble. You could take a bold fashion gamble without taking out a loan. If it went out of style a month later, no big deal — it didn’t cost much. Got a last minute invite to be a date at a wedding? You could pick up a fancy-enough cocktail dress or suit jacket without breaking the bank.
In retrospect, we should have asked a few questions. What we were really seeing was the advent of fast fashion — clothing companies that skirted regulations and avoided ethics altogether in order to move their product at a competitive price. It wasn’t just material and construction that got cheaper. Factory workers got paid less for longer hours in unsafe working conditions that could your blood if you could actually see it. But since we can’t see it, the practice has continued largely unabated.
Some companies have done a good job of committing to better, more ethical fashion. Clothing companies like Everlane, Mate the Label, Outerknown and Patagonia have drawn positive headlines for making a real effort to deliver on fair wages, sustainable practices and safe conditions for their workers. But on the other end of the scale there are these brands, which are worth avoiding or even contacting about their practices. Just because you’re saving a little money by buying from them doesn’t mean there is no cost.
Brands to Avoid
The Chinese clothing brand has become a major player in recent years, adding an incredible 500 pieces of clothing to its store a day. How do they do it? Good question. It doesn’t share any information about where its product or made and stays very tight-lipped about its supply chain. Shein insists that it doesn’t use forced or child labor, but a government probe found evidence of 75-hour weeks.
In 2018, a new report found that H&M’s much heralded promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage had been broken, and the company had completely ignored its workers’ complaints of inhumane working conditions — working conditions that have led to deaths. A 2018 Guardian report also found that abuse is a “daily reality” for women who work in H&M factories.
Every Forever21 shopping bag has John 3:16 printed on the bottom, which founder Do Won Chang put there because “it shows us how much God loves us.” That’s a great sentiment but, unfortunately, Forever21’s business practices don’t show God’s love for all humanity, including the people who make the clothes that have made Chang a wealthy man. A US Labor Department investigation found that a factory in LA was paying workers $4.50 per hour. Forever21 leadership declined to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was written to ensure safe working conditions for laborers in the garment industry.
Fashion Nova exploded on the scene, becoming the most Googled clothing brand of 2018. It adds 600 new items of clothing to its online catalog per week, but offers exactly zero details about how it pulls this off. It received a rare 0 percent score on the annual Fashion Transparency Index. Workers at LA factories that made clothes for Fashion Nova reported being paid as little as $2.77 an hour.
The minimalist Japanese brand is well-loved for its cheap basics, but fields regular controversies for underpaying its staff — especially for overtime — and gets slapped with multiple labor violations. Fortunately, Uniqlo has shown signs of taking steps to correct some of its past unethical behavior.
Like Uniqlo, Topshop has made strides towards more environmental sustainability in recent years, and should be commended for that. But very little information is available about how much they’re paying workers and when you’re moving Joni skinny jeans at a rate of one every ten seconds, it’s worth asking just how possible that is while treating workers fairly.
The retail giant owns several popular fast fashion chains like Oasis, Wallis and Pretty Little Thing, all of which grapple with low wages for workers and no evidence that they’ve addressed alerts from watchdog organizations.
Brands to Shop at Instead
If you’re looking for a place to get your summer wardrobe ready and want to make sure your dollars are going to humane business practices, here are a few solid brands we love. Remember, these places might cost a little more than some of the spots listed above, which means shopping sustainably and ethically might mean some of us have to rethink what our wardrobes look like. Maybe we get by on fewer, higher quality pieces that will last longer and leave us with an easier conscience. Here are a few places to start:
Reformation: Affordable, stylish pieces for women with transparent, detailed descriptions about how their pieces are made and who made it.
Patagonia: Long the favored brand of outdoorsy, granola types, Patagonia’s longterm commitment to environmental ethics and worker fairness has earned some several generations of loyalists.
Outerknown: The California brand specializes in surf-inspired wear for people who like going to the beach (or like to look like they are anyway) and works with recycled materials while partnering with humanitarian organizations to make sure the people who make their clothes are being treated fair and paid well.
Levi’s: Proof that you can be successful and sustainable, one of America’s most beloved clothing brands is also one of its most ethical, giving back to workers and communities alike while making sure it’s leaving the environment better than it was before they got there.
Everlane: Everlane got famous for their T-shirts, which fit and cost how much a tee should fit and cost. They do it all carefully too, taking good care of their employees and the materials they use.