In an earlier article, we looked at the ethical issues associated with the fast fashion business model. Now we’re taking a closer look at the practices of Uniqlo, Topshop and Forever 21 to find out what they are doing to make their businesses more ethical and sustainable.
It’s not off to a great start…
None of the three have signed the Ethical Trading Initiative, which requires that suppliers meet a baseline code for workers’ rights. Forever 21 is the only brand not to have signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety. Does a closer look at their policies suggest any moves towards a more ethical business model?
Originating in Japan in 1984, Uniqlo has 446 stores outside Japan, including 4 in Australia.
The 2014 Sustainability Report summarises workplace monitoring results conducted in 294 of its supply factories. It states that four audits resulted in E grade due to false reporting, child labour or unauthorised subcontracting.
Overall, the majority of audits came back with a B grade valuation, indicating “one or more minor violations”.
The publication of these audits, though vague, at least suggests an attempt at transparency. However, earlier this year non-profit SACOM reported that workers couldn’t get a living wage without working overtime.
It was also reported that workplaces were dirty, poorly ventilated and extremely hot. This prompted Uniqlo to promise to improve working conditions in its Hong Kong supplier factories.
Like H&M, Uniqlo’s website has a long list of environmental commitments. These include an All-Product Recycling Initiative, environmental inspections of fabric manufacturers, packaging reduction and creating more energy-efficient store designs.
From its own reports and commitment, Uniqlo seems to take corporate social responsibility seriously, but there are few independent external assessments or rankings on its achievements.
Topshop is a UK-based company with over 340 stores around the world.
Topshop’s parent company, Arcadia, only signed the Bangladesh Accord after months of pressure from advocacy groups. Beyond this, Arcadia says little about monitoring conditions in its supply factories.
Topshop does make more of an effort in terms of environmental sustainability. Its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan includes Better Cotton Initiative membership and also a Reclaim to Wear program. This is a range of up-cycled clothing created from fabric that would otherwise be treated as waste. However, the value of this program and its effectiveness in reducing the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill has been questioned.
The 2014 report states that 94% of energy used in stores is from renewable stores. It also claims that 38,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions have been reduced since 2008. There is no information on how this has been achieved.
From the information available, it seems questionable how much Topshop truly cares about ethical fashion, beyond a publicity point.
Forever 21 has over 480 stores globally, and is planning on opening its 3rd store in Australia on Sydney’s Pitt Street later this year. Of all the major fast fashion brands, this has the sparsest corporate responsibility commitment.
Forever 21 only began random inspections of suppliers in 2012 after a 4-year investigation by the US Labor Department revealed sweatshop-like conditions in many of its supply factories. It is also the only fast fashion brand we’ve looked at that has not signed the Bangladesh Accord. Forever 21 has also been criticised for its cotton sourcing.
Half of Forever 21’s short corporate social responsibility statement refers to charities that it is involved in, suggesting that it treats basic worker rights as an optional charitable cause.
Forever 21’s environmental policy is the shortest of them all. It mentions small initiatives like installing LED lighting in new stores, recycling all shipment boxes and transporting products by sea rather than air to reduce carbon emissions. It lacks an overarching commitment to reduce the company’s environmental impact.
A study by the North American Center for Environmental Health found that 10 out of 30 of Forever 21’s purses tested positive for high levels of lead. In one instance it was found that the product remained on sale even after the Center had notified Forever 21 of the findings.
Are there ethical fast fashion options?
Of the three brands looked at here, Uniqlo has the most robust approach to making its business more ethical, although, like H&M and Zara, there remains the challenge of making sure that factory workers actually feel the results of these policies. Topshop and Forever 21 don’t seem to approach corporate social responsibility as more than a publicity statement. So if you need to get that fast fashion fix, these brands are probably not the best options.