If I told you today that your favourite local café was dumping toxic waste into water supplies, incinerating perfectly edible foodstuffs, and keeping workers chained up in the back for 12 hours a day with no toilet break, chances are, you wouldn’t visit that café again. Not only that, but there would be widescale outrage, sensationalist headlines all over the daily rags, and a police investigation, all of which would force the business to eventually close down.
So why, then, when the same thing happens on a global scale with your favourite fashion brands does this outcome not apply?
As it stands, the fast fashion industry is one of the world’s largest polluters and benefactors of modern slavery. It will never change, and indeed the nature of the business means it can never change – mass-producing new designs every week and shipping them across the globe at the lowest price has to be done ‘fast’ or the industry faces losing its USP. Terms like ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’ allow corporate giants to conceal the toxic chemicals being used to distress their jeans and the child labourers exploited on minimum wage – but behind this cloud of greenwashing, the human and planetary cost is terrible. In one of the most recent disasters of modern fashion history, a Bangledeshi garment factory collapsed at Rana Plaza in 2013 leading to the deaths of 1,134 workers, thanks to sub-standard construction and improper investigation. The factory produced materials for Prada, Gucci, Mango, Matalan, Primark, Bonmarché and more – yet it seems history is doomed to repeat itself as brands escape accountability.
So, I decided to compile a list today of just a few fast fashion brands that I boycott, something that I hope encourages you to do the same.
Owned by parent company Inditex created by Amancio Ortega Gaona (who was at one time the richest man in the world when the company’s stock peaked in 2018), Zara is known for its affordable but stylish clothing items. Before I gave up fast fashion for good, I’ll admit I was a big fan of Zara, but the poor quality clothing often left a niggle in the back of my mind about the ethics of its production. Included at the footer of the Zara website is the Inditex Group Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Transparency in Supply Chain Statement, the first line of which clearly reads, ‘Inditex Group has always [my emphasis] been fully committed to respecting, promoting and protecting human rights within its entire supply chain, this being one of the main pillars of its business model’. But clearly, this has not always been the case.
In 2011, Zara was accused of allowing slave labour to occur in one of its factories in Sao Paolo, Brazil; workers there reported earning a measly $569 per month, despite the average pair of Zara jeans they sewed selling for $126 in the country. Working conditions were also found to be unsafe, and one fire extinguisher had expired in 1998. The Daily Mail also uncovered that children as young as 14 were being hired to work at the factory. After being informed of the matter, Zara claimed that the conditions found in these factories breached the Code of Conduct for External Manufacturers and Workshops of Inditex and that the factories were urged to regularize the situation immediately ‘to ensure that such cases do not occur again.’ But of course, this was not the last and only incident.
In 2013, another instance of slave labour occurring in Zara garment factories was reported in Argentina – working conditions were again reported to be unsafe, with electric cables hanging from the ceiling. Some workers were discovered to have been sleeping in bunks next to their work stations with many being made to work 13-hour shifts.
In 2017, it was reported that handwritten notes were found in Zara clothing items sold in Turkey warning buyers that factory workers were not being paid. One message read, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it”.
Amancio Ortega has the power and money necessary to pay his employees a fair wage and yet since 2011 he has watched as workers go without food, rest, or pay. Let’s not put our own money in his pocket.
Shein and Fashion Nova
Catering for the Instagram famous, Shein, Fashion Nova, and other companies like them churn out new, super cheap items faster than the Kardashian-Jenner’s churn out kids with weird names. With these brands being relatively new on the scene, there is as yet little information about them – but as Forbes rightly points out, ‘for clothes so cheap, sweatshops are kind of expected’.
In 2015, Shein was accused of scamming its customers after a number of people failed to receive their orders. With a barrage of negative comments coming their way, it was alleged that the brand offered customers a full refund if they deleted their negative reviews. Doing some research into the production side of things, I found its policy on sustainability to be limited with no obvious information on environmental impact, human rights pledges, or even locations of factories. Instead, a vague sentence under the ‘Manufacturing’ page reads, “When we visit the factories, we sometimes lament the production-related inefficiencies. However, we are very pleased that through effective communication and cooperation, we are able to see shortened production cycles to release new products”. What factories and where? What inefficiencies? Communication and cooperation with whom? Such information leaves us with more questions than answers, and one has to wonder what is going on that is invisible to the naked eye.
Fashion Nova, on the other hand, has a clearer transparency statement – “Fashion Nova, Inc. (“Fashion Nova”) has a zero-tolerance policy for both forced labor and child labor and we are committed to ensuring that our supply chain reflects our respect for human rights”, their site reads. Yet despite their apparent zero-tolerance policy, a 2019 investigation by the New York Times that took place over the course of three years, discovered that workers at the brand’s factories in Los Angeles had been severely underpaid, with wages found to be ‘illegally low’ by the Federal Labour Department. As of last year, Fashion Nova owed $3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of its workers, many of whom were undocumented immigrants earning just $2.77 an hour. One employee noted on the working conditions, “there were cockroaches… there were rats…” at the factory she worked at. But, in accordance with federal law, ‘brands cannot be penalized for wage theft in factories if they can credibly claim that they did not know their clothes were made by workers paid illegally low wages’, giving Fashion Nova an easy way out of the scandal if they choose it.
All fast fashion brands are unethical, but if I had to pinpoint the worst one in my opinion, it would undoubtedly be, H&M. The Swedish fashion giant that has been around since 1947 is a rather curious example, due to the fact that a prominent feature in its marketing campaigns is sustainability – it even has a whole section devoted to transparency clearly marked on its website. Amongst their goal to be climate positive by 2040 and their sustainability commitment with suppliers, they too list a ‘zero-tolerance approach to both forced labour and child labour’ – it seems a pattern is emerging. Impressively, the same page also reported, ‘in 2019, we identified 0 cases of child labour’ – however, when we consider that H&M conduct their own audits, it seems to me that this figure is to be expected.
Despite this, though, in 2010 a fire at a Bangladeshi factory that supplied H&M killed 21 workers and injured a further 15 – an audit conducted by H&M just months before recorded ‘no “serious” safety problems’.
In 2016, it was uncovered that children as young as 14 had been exploited in H&M factories in Myanmar, with some made to work more the 12 hours a day. In 2017, the company admitted to Greenpeace that it had incinerated wearable clothing items, and that this was ‘not an isolated case’. Burning clothes has a detrimental effect on the environment, releasing carbon dioxide and exacerbating global warming; incineration of synthetic fibres (which many of H&M’s items contain) may also release plastic microfibres into the atmosphere, a severe health risk. In 2018, a report from Global Labour Justice found that female workers producing clothes for H&M and Gap faced daily gender-based abuse, including rape. In 2019, allegations were made against the brand claiming that some of its products had been manufactured by Chinese prisoners, though the company later launched an investigation which found no truth to the claim.
In 2020, the company was accused of greenwashing following the announcement of its new ‘sustainable’ fabric, Circulose. Anti-fast fashion campaigner, Venetia La Manna, commented on the partnering between H&M and Circulose saying, “fashion this fast can never and will never be sustainable”, and that is exactly the point. There is no sustainable way to shop fast fashion, no matter what smoke and mirrors that companies throw at you – so take that as an indication that even I have left your favourite brand off the list, if it’s ‘fast’ you should probably boycott it too.
Fashion United, Global fashion industry statistics – International apparel
Wikipedia, 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse
Daily Mail, ‘Zara accused of employing children as young as 14 in ‘slave labour’ factories in Brazil’, Aug 19 2011
Equal Times, ‘Zara uses slave labour in Argentina’, May 15 2013.
The Independent, ‘Unpaid labourers are ‘slipping pleas for help into Zara clothes’, Nov 4 2017.
Fashion Nova, California Transparency in Supply Chains Act
NY Times, Fashion Nova’s Secret: Underpaid Workers in Los Angeles Factories, Dec 16 2019
The Independent, ’21 workers die in fire at H&M factory’, Mar 2 2010.
The Guardian, ‘H&M factories in Myanmar employed 14-year-old workers’, Aug 21 2016.
Greenpeace, ‘Why is H&M burning new clothes?’, Nov 7 2017.
BBC Earth, ‘Will fashion firms stop burning clothes?’
Global Citizen, ‘Hundreds of H&M and Gap Factory Workers Abused Daily: Report’, Jun 5 2018.
Retail Gazette, ‘H&M to investigate slave labour allegations’, Dec 24 2019.
The Independent, ‘H&M accused of ‘greenwashing’ over plans to make clothes from sustainable fabric’, Feb 1 2020.
Image by: Lauren Fleischmann