American label Free People is known for its range of bohemian clothes and accessories it says conveys an image of ‘femininity, courage and spirit.’ Owned by retail giant URBN — which also owns Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters — Free People’s carefully curated aesthetic clearly resonates with its young female customer base, operating in a whopping 1,400 speciality stores around the world. But does its free-spirited image align with its ethics?
While Free People has made some progress when it comes to reducing its impact on the planet, there is still room for improvement.
Free People’s parent company URBN has taken some steps to lower its carbon output across its portfolio. These include the promotion of reusable shopping bags, using energy efficient LED lighting in stores, and improving fuel efficiency in transport.
However, Free People uses few eco-friendly materials and has made no commitments to reduce direct and indirect carbon emissions. The brand also fails to disclose the details of a Restricted Substance List it says it complies with. There is also no evidence it’s taking adequate steps to address hazardous chemicals in its supply chain, or that it manages water usage and wastewater.
Whilst the brand has the potential to incorporate more eco-friendly materials, its reliance on a fast fashion model ultimately renders it unsustainable. By following fleeting trends and producing huge amounts of resource-intensive clothes, it’s hard to see how Free People can become more eco-friendly without embracing a different business model.
Free People has signed the Responsible Sourcing Network which aims to end human rights abuses and forced labor in raw materials industries like cotton. However, the brand does not publicly release enough information about its stance on labor rights. Free People claims to cover most workers’ rights principles in its Code of Conduct — but it’s not made this document public, which is unusual even for a fast fashion brand.
On its website, Free People states that suppliers must conduct business in accordance with the law. This includes remaining free from the use of child or slave labour, discrimination and compliance with wage and hour requirements, and health, safety and environmental laws. But there is no evidence that workers are being paid a living wage.
And whilst Free People states some of its supply chain is independently audited — including with the use of unannounced audits — it is unclear how often or which part of the supply chain is audited. What’s more, the brand does not adequately trace suppliers or publicly share a list of suppliers. This is a problem because the welfare of workers cannot be guaranteed if a brand cannot trace all of its supply chain.
Free People should be more transparent about its practices. A good start would include releasing its Code of Conduct and list of suppliers to the public, as well as improving its efforts to trace all of its supply chain.
Although Free People has made some progress in relation to animal welfare, there is still a way to go before it can achieve a higher rating. The brand received recognition from PETA-Approved Vegan for its ‘Go Vegan’ campaign and range of vegan products. While Free People went angora-free in 2016 as part of URBN’s decision to stop using angora across its portfolio, the brand still uses leather, wool, fur, down, shearling and cashmere from unspecified sources. Unfortunately the welfare of both the animals and workers cannot be guaranteed if the brand cannot trace the source of its products.
Free People could improve its rating by tracing the sources of its animal-derived materials, or even better, by not using them in their products altogether.