Someone wearing a white t-shirt with the words American Apparel and a sad emoji face overlaid in white text.
28 Jun
Someone wearing a white t-shirt with the words American Apparel and a sad emoji face overlaid in white text.

How Ethical Is American Apparel?

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While American Apparel claims to be “ethically made”, it rates “Not Good Enough” for its lack of effort across the board. This article is based on the American Apparel rating published in February 2021.

Sturdy, yes. Sustainable? Not so much

“Ethically Made – Sweatshop Free”. These are some of the first words you see on American Apparel’s website.

Founded in 1989, the American brand is known for its sturdy and timeless basics. American Apparel was once one of the biggest apparel producers in the US, and was known for being “Made in the US”. After some scandals and financial troubles, the brand was sold to Canadian activewear manufacturer Gildan in early 2017 and closed its stores. It reopened that same year as an online-only retailer. But the “Made in the US” statement was nowhere to be found. American Apparel is now “Globally Sourced, Ethically Made, Still Sweatshop Free”, and a lot of its products are made in Central America – most often in Honduras.

The brand believes that “making clothing can improve lives while respecting the environment, the planet, the world we live in.” But we couldn’t help but wonder: how “Ethically Made – Sweatshop Free” is the brand, really? How ethical is American Apparel?

Environmental impact

American Apparel’s environment rating is “Not Good Enough”. It uses Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified organic cotton in its organic range, but this only makes up a small percentage of its products. It re-uses off cuts created during the manufacturing process, but doesn’t have adequate policies on energy use and carbon emissions. It also doesn’t use any widely accepted tools to guide measurement and reporting, and there is no evidence it is taking adequate steps to minimise or eliminate hazardous chemicals in its supply chain. What’s more, there is no evidence it has adequate policies or initiatives on water usage and wastewater management. For all these reasons we couldn’t give American Apparel a higher rating, and some real work needs to be done in this area if they are looking to improve their score.

Labour conditions

American Apparel’s labour rating is also “Not Good Enough”, a drop from “Good” in 2018. Some of its supply chain is accredited by FLA Workplace Code of Conduct including all of the final stage of production. It received a score of 41-50% in the Fashion Transparency Index. It likely publishes detailed information about its supplier policies, audits, and remediation processes, and a detailed list of suppliers in the final stage of production and some information about the second stage of production. It may be publishing some information about forced labour, gender equality, or freedom of association. But there is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in its supply chain.

There are still some improvements to be made, and something as basic and necessary as paying workers a living wage should be a top priority.

Animal welfare

American Apparel uses wool and leather without stating sources, which means there is no guarantee that they are ethically sourced. While it doesn’t use fur, angora, down, or exotic animal skin or hair, it does resell vintage and one-off garments made with angora, and there is no evidence it has a policy to minimise the suffering of animals nor that it traces any animal product to the first stage of production. This is why we rated the brand “Not Good Enough” for its animal welfare practices.

Overall rating: Not Good Enough

Overall, based on our research, we rate American Apparel “Not Good Enough”. Although American Apparel is off to a good start by using GOTS cotton and making some headway in labour conditions, it still needs to improve on some key points. The brand doesn’t use any widely accepted tools to guide measurement and reporting, which is why it’s hard to really understand its overall impact. There is also no evidence that it’s taking adequate steps to minimise or eliminate hazardous chemicals in its supply chain, or to properly manage water usage and wastewater, which is imperative if environmental impact is a priority.

Although American Apparel claims to be “Ethically Made”, it needs to ensure its workers are paid a living wage and disclose where it sources its wool and leather before it can truly live up to its own slogan.

Note that Good On You ratings consider hundreds of issues, and it is not possible to list every relevant issue in a summary of the company’s performance. For more information, see our How We Rate page and our FAQs.

See the rating.

Good swaps

“Good and “Great” alternatives to American Apparel

Bon Label

Rated: Great

Born from brand owner Linda Smyth’s search for the perfect white tee, Bon Label’s products emulate that timeless French simplicity and elegance. They make their t-shirts from 100% organic cotton to perfectly match with your favourite denim on the weekend or a classic pin skirt in the office. Bon Label uses no animal products in their manufacturing and has a strong focus on ethical labour practice, everything we like to hear.

See the rating.

Shop Bon Label.

Citizen Wolf

Rated: Great

Citizen Wolf uses revolutionary technology to give you high-quality custom fit t-shirts. It's so confident in its t-shirts that it guarantees they’ll be the best you’ve ever worn. After capturing your customisations, the brand hand makes each tee in Sydney from certified sustainable fabrics like cotton, hemp, and Merino wool milled in Melbourne.

See the rating.

Shop Citizen Wolf.

PACT

Rated: Great

PACT is a U-based brand that is passionate about being part of a movement transforming the way apparel is made. All of its clothing is sweatshop-free and child-labour-free, and its activewear range is almost entirely made from certified organic cotton, with more than 50% also certified as Fair Trade. Find PACT in sizes XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop PACT.

tentree

Rated: Good

Canadian brand tentree believes big change starts small. Small as in bringing your reusable bag to the grocery store, making fewer, more thoughtful purchases, and choosing to purchase sustainably when you do. The brand plants ten trees for every item purchased to help regenerate ecosystems and provide planting jobs in communities around the world, and has already planted over 65 million trees.

All tentree’s products are created with an Earth-First approach, meaning they're made in fair, safe working conditions, and constructed using more sustainably sourced and recycled materials.

tentree’s super comfy fabrics and easy wardrobe staples are typically available from XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop tentree.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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