Do you know the story behind the biggest brands in the world? Where does the leather come from? What conditions do the workers labour in? Who’s leading the way on environmental sustainability?
Fast fashion describes the way some of the world’s biggest clothing labels design, manufacture and distribute clothing. Fast Fashion brands sample the latest catwalk trends and reproduce them cheaply for the masses in a very short space of time. This method has revolutionised the way we buy clothes over the last 20 years or so. It means for the price of a lunch at your local cafe, you can buy a top just like one worn at Paris fashion week the previous month.
What it also means is that fashion is more abundant, and more disposable than ever before. That means more waste, more pollution and a greater likelihood that workers will be mistreated to drive down costs. So how do some of the world’s biggest fast fashion brands, Topshop, Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21 and Zara, rate on ethics and sustainability?
British chain Topshop mastered the art of bringing high fashion looks to the high street and are now considered fashion establishment. They have a long association with Kate Moss, and Anna Wintour graces the front row of their shows. Topshop/Topman have taken some steps towards sustainability such as an organic cotton range and saying they recycle 89% of their waste. Whilst they have signed the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, there are still some concerns about the use of child labour. They don’t use fur or angora but they need to reveal more about how their wool and leather is sourced.
Japanese brand Uniqlo became a force in fashion in the 90s when they developed a business model which saw them control all aspects of design, manufacture, marketing and sales. They now have over 850 stores in Japan and more than 630 in other countries around the world. Uniqlo have been praised for their transparency on labour rights, they signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord and avoid Uzbek cotton. Greenpeace has identified Uniqlo as a ‘detox leader’ and the company has taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint. However, they need to specify the source of their leather products to get a better animal rating. Find out more here.
Swedish fast fashion masters H&M have more than 3,000 stores around the world, employing more than 130,000 people. Given the size and scale of its operations, H&M has the potential to have a significant impact on ethical fashion globally. Indeed, they have taken the lead with some of their environmental policies, including publishing ambitious targets for carbon emissions reduction and a conscious fashion clothing range. H&M are accredited by the Fair Labour Association and avoid Uzbek cotton. However, it was recently revealed that, while they had signed the Bangladesh Accord, they were dragging their heels in implementing some important safety measures. Find out more here.
Forever 21 are an American, family-owned specialty fashion brand has grown over the last 30 years to be the fifth biggest of its type in the USA. Forever 21 have failed to say anything meaningful about their environmental and sustainability policies, so we were unable to give them a rating. They have also failed to commit to avoiding Uzbek cotton, which is notorious for forced labour. However they do have a supplier code of conduct. Forever 21 ban angora and fur but there is no information about leather and wool sourcing. Find out more here.
Zara are another huge fast fashion brand, with over 2,000 stores globally. The Spanish giants are known for their vast range of items and, according to The Guardian, they can get a garment designed, made and on the shelves in a week. Zara aim to make all of their stores 100% eco-efficient by 2020, and following a Greenpeace campaigning, they have pledged to remove certain harmful dyes from their supply chain. Zara have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord and are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, however it has been criticised over the treatment of its Brazilian workers. They do well on animals, banning fur and angora. Their wool is not mulesed and their leather comes from meat farms. Find out more here.
The majority of these fast fashion brands get an ‘It’s a Start’ rating from us. Some of them have implemented innovative sustainability policies, and have taken steps to ensure the welfare of their manufacturing workers. However, questions remain about whether fast, disposable fashion can ever really be ethical. Buying fewer clothes from brands that have sustainability and fair trade principles built into their business models is a more certain way of ensuring your clothes meet your values.
Editor’s note: this article was updated in November 2018. Feature image via Uniqlo. Additional images via the brands mentioned.