Want to shop ethically? These are the brands you should approach with caution
On 24 April 2013 at 8.57 am, an overcrowded garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1134 people and injuring a further 2,500. Many of those who died had been employed in the production of clothes for major high-street retailers including Bennetton, Monsoon Accessorize, Mango, Matalan, Primark and Walmart. They were already working in conditions that most of us would consider beyond imagination. In an instant, the ethics of how our clothes are produced was brought to public attention in the most shocking and horrific way.
Promises were made, fire safety accords set up and compensation paid. But when shoppers in Turkey reportedly found pleas for help stitched into pairs of Zara jeans recently, it reignited debate not only about how big brands manage their supply chains, but also about how much it is the consumer’s responsibility to hold retailers to account.
And every time a story like this pops up, we tell ourselves it's time to stop with the fast-fashion and invest in those all important classic staples that will stand the test of time - we're compassionate, empathetic, civilised people, after all. But old habits die hard, and it’s not long before we find ourselves back at the tills, clutching a £10 dress that we know will actually only last a couple of washes.
So, which retailers should we be approaching with caution this Christmas if we want to keep a clean conscience? With issues including child labour, sweatshops, fair pay, working conditions, environmental impact and transparency in mind, we’ve listed just a few:
1. Forever 21
Forever 21 are more than a little murky when it comes to their supply chains. According to Project JUST, which researches the supply chains of big fashion brands, Forever 21 refuse to disclose publicly exactly where their suppliers are located and, unlike many other retailers, do not commission 3rd party audits of the conditions in its factories. Add in the fact that in 2016 they were called out by the US Labor Department, who found that one of its supplier factories were failing to pay workers in Los Angeles the legal minimum wage, and it’s not hard to see why they tend to score low on ethical trading lists.
2. Urban Outfitters
A haven of those cool, hipster, oh-so-edgy types, you’d think that Urban Outfitters would make quite the effort to keep its own back yard in order and shout about it too. But you would be wrong. Notwithstanding the ridiculous amount of times they’re upset people with questionable judgement - including tops inspired by the Kent State Massacre and the Holocaust - their paper-trail regarding where their clothes are produced, and how processes are monitored, is pretty hard to come by. Making it even more suspicious is the fact that Free People, who are owned by the same company, are the complete opposite and score very well on the ethical scale - so it definitely can be done.
3. Victoria’s Secret
With millions to spend on a glittering fashion show every year, you would probably expect that Victoria’s Secret would have more than enough money in the bank to get by without relying on cheap labour. But questions have been raised about the treatment of individuals at their Jordanian supplier factory, with an accusation of harsh conditions, low pay, long hours and workers being arrested when they complain. Funnily enough, VS declined to provide any information on working conditions in low wage countries when contacted by Project JUST. Accordingly, the brand received the lowest possible rating in a Rank-a-Brand study, and didn’t fare much better in a Behind the Barcode’s 2017 Ethical Fashion Report either.
Formerly thought of as a solid, respectable brand, Uniqlo currently has its work cut out to restore its reputation after a string of controversies surrounding its supply lines. In October 2016, an investigation by War on Want found “excessive overtime, low pay, dangerous working conditions and oppressive management to be rife” in Uniqlo’s Chinese production factories. This came despite them having previously been vocal about their commitment to “making the world a better place” as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. Sorry Uniqlo, but you need to earn the trust back.
While this Swedish fashion retailer is making considerable strides when it comes to cleaning up their act, and are considered by some to be leading the way in the ethical high-street fashion crusade, they do have a bit of a reputation for promoting themselves as an "ethical" retailer even when standards are somewhat lacking. Their website claims that they are one of the most ethical fashion companies in the world, but as recently as 2016 children were found working in one factory producing H&M clothing. Their Conscious range, in which everything is sustainably made, is admirable - but in a big way only serves to underline the fact that perhaps nothing else is.
So, where can you shop guilt-free? Well, Free People, GAP and Levi’s all scored highly, with Project JUST describing the latter as a: “pioneer in social and environmental sustainability in the industry”. Proving that sustainability doesn’t have to break the banks, high-street favourite New Look also frequently scores well in ethical fashion rankings.
But realistically, in a world of fast-fashion, with quick bucks to be made, it’s going to be hard to find a retailer that doesn’t have their burdens to bear in some way or another, whether this is in their carbon footprint or in ensuring that pay is fair at every level of the supply chain. But next time you’re in a shop, about to buy the $10 dress that seems too good a bargain to be true, take a minute to consider how it was made, and whether you really need it. Because we make a statement about who we want to be by choosing where to spend our cash as we do by choosing the garment itself.