25 Most Unethical Clothing Companies in 2021

25 Most Unethical Clothing Companies in 2021

By
Dennis Kamprad

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Let’s be real for a moment: Fast fashion is wreaking havoc on the planet. Multinational corporations are chiefly focused on making executives and shareholders rich – and they are exploiting workers all around the world to do it. And on top of everything, companies will mock you and trick you into purchasing their clothing by trying to turn around this reality through the contemporary corporate communication tactic known as greenwashing.

The most unethical clothing companies are mainly popular multinational and e-commerce brands like Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Fashion Nova, Uniqlo, Forever 21, Nike, Adidas, Disney, H&M that have been exposed to multiple unethical practices – including labor exploitation and/ or forced labor.

It’s time we stopped supporting these unethical behaviors. We’ve uncovered some of the most unethical clothing companies that you need to know about. And as you will see, even when brands say they are doing the right thing, they aren’t always doing the right thing.

Recommendation: If you are interested in finding out how you can live more ethically in general and make decisions that are not only good for you but also for our society, you should check out the book Do The Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World (link to Amazon).

Clothing Companies Exploiting Forced Uyghur Labor in China

Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch was called out in a 2018 report entitled “Labour Without Liberty” for sourcing garments from factories where workers are subjected to modern slavery conditions. And sure enough, it has been identified as benefiting from Uyhgar forced labor.

But the brand isn’t limited to poor ethical decisions in manufacturing through its supply chains. 

AFL-CIO put out a list of twenty CEOs that furloughed workers in 2020. These particular CEOs were called out because they make more in wages than an average employee by a ratio of minimally 1000:1. Abercrombie & Fitch CEO ranks at the top with a ratio of 4,293:1. (By the way, the total compensation given to those CEOs was equal to the compensation of over 30,000 median level employees.)

The brand was also called out in 2015 by the Rainforest Action Network for sourcing tree-based fabrics irresponsibly.

Hollister

Hollister has just as many ethical concerns as its parent company, Abercrombie & Fitch, including being caught up in a scandal of discriminating against the disabled. Both brands have been struggling financially and transitioning to fast-fashion to stay relevant in trends.

However, as we know, fast-fashion is unsustainable and predominantly relies on forced labor or other unethical factory conditions.

Nike

Nike is the world’s largest sportswear manufacturer and retailer, selling upwards of 25 pairs of shoes each second. That’s over 2 million a day…and that’s just shoes. Imagine how much waste the brand creates overall. And the brand’s success has come from utilizing some very unethical practices.

In the past, Nike has been accused of using child labor and supposedly nurturing sexual harassment and discrimination cultures. Plus, its factories are not independently monitored by labor rights groups. And not surprisingly, Nike has been exposed as using Uyhgar forced labor, causing more uproar and boycott against the brand.

Undeterred, Nike joined Apple and Coca-Cola in lobbying Washington to preserve Uyhgar slavery by Communist China

The American multinational corporation is also known to use toxic chemicals that are very harmful to both the environment and factory workers. 

Adidas

Adidas is the world’s second-largest manufacturer of sportswear after Nike. Like its competitor, the brand has been known for using cheap production via sweatshops and child labor to become the multinational corporation it is today. Indeed, it seems that all corporate-brand sportswear garments are made by exploiting workers and ignoring basic human rights. 

In another commonality of the sportswear industry, Adidas garments undergo several chemical treatments to make them more colorful, flexible, durable, or water-repellant. Over the years, these processes have polluted the waters and are horrible for local ecosystems. 

Public outrage over this prompted a pledge from the brand to rectify the issue, committing to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. The most recent Chemical Footprint progress report Adidas has available is from April 2019. Unfortunately, this document is only to inform the public of what implementations have been made, and that communication is steady throughout the supply chain. It has no information on how effective and successful anything has been.

Furthermore, the company uses synthetic microfibers, which the brand admits is both necessary for its products yet harmful for the environment. Conveniently, the brand waited until 2019 before founding an initiative to address this, and it confirms Adidas has not reached its zero discharge by 2020 goal.

We saw that Adidas had been getting better with transparency and was one of the few big-name sportswear brands to make an effort in addressing its issues with forced labor. Nonetheless, the brand continues to benefit from some of the worst instances of modern slavery with Uyghur forced labor

The company has recently stated its intention to cut forced labor from its supply chain; however, seeing as how they made the effort over the last decade to simply side-step some problems, the brand will really need to make fast progress to convince the public it has genuinely changed its tune.

Victoria’s Secret

Victoria’s Secret has a laundry list of unethical behavior, including child labor, formaldehyde lawsuits, and a “toxic culture of sexual harassment” of its models. The brand is not transparent about all the factories they work with, but it is known that they use sweatshops in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Jordan. 

These workers are underpaid and made to work over 14 hours a day in some cases. And now they have shown up on the list of 83 companies using forced labor by Uyghurs.

L.L. Bean

L.L. Bean made headlines back in 2017 when then-President-Elect Donald Trump had tweeted support for the brand, which caused a political response that resulted in the Grab Your Wallet movement encouraging its followers to boycott. Maybe you stopped shopping L.L. Bean at that time, but if you didn’t, maybe you should consider Uyhgar labor as the ethical reason to discontinue buying the brand.

Uniqlo

Uniqlo, a fast-fashion brand out of Japan, offers casual, comfortable clothing to an international market. However, they do not offer casual, comfortable working conditions for its factory workers. Once known for child labor, the brand now uses forced labor or cheap, exploited labor from Indonesia, Bangladesh, and China.

In 2015, numerous violations of labor rights were reported by one of the brand’s Chinese suppliers. In 2016, there were allegations that the brand had a culture of harassment and bullying, and it still required “excessive overtime” for poor wages in dangerous conditions.

It appears as though public uproar about the unsustainable nature of fast-fashion allowed Uniqlo to shift attention towards improving its environmental impact. This even earned them a ranking on Good On You as “It’s a Start.” As it turns out, this was just a mere distraction from the workers’ rights issue the brand was refusing to address; Uniqlo showed up in 2020 as a company that had been benefiting from Uighur labor since 2017.

H&M

H&M has been caught red-handed in greenwashing in recent years, and it doesn’t appear as though they are trying to make a change. The brand’s actions are mere virtue signals at best, as promises have been broken and initiatives are lacking.

For example, after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, H&M promised to give its workers a fair wage by 2018. As of the close of business for 2020, the brand has still failed to make this happen. H&M also has a recycling campaign for clothing. But this may be better received if, say, the brand sold higher-quality clothes that didn’t have to be discarded so quickly. 

And its Conscious Collection that is allegedly more sustainable actually mixes the sustainable materials with other fabrics, redesigning them unrecyclable (and further contradicting that recycling campaign).

GAP

GAP was once one of the largest fashion retailers in America that has since become yet another fast-fashion brand that is known for poor-quality, cheap clothing. In the past, the brand was exposed for not paying its staff overtime and subjecting its workers to unsafe working conditions, even forced abortions for female workers. 

In May 2006, one of the brand’s suppliers revealed that they were made to work over 100 hours a week and hadn’t received compensation for six months. Some of the staff had even accused factory management of sexual misconduct. It wasn’t until May 2018 that GAP ended its relationship with the supplier. But a month later, more reports of abuse were found elsewhere.

Since then, the brand has made an effort to address its large environmental footprint and improve the supply chain. But this doesn’t escape the fact that GAP was found listed among the list of companies linked to Uyghur forced labor. Other workers persist with complaints that they are made to work more than 16 hours a day, paid half the minimum wage in India, and have no union rights. 

Unethical and Unsustainable Fast-Fashion Brands

Inditex Brands

Inditex has eight brands under its umbrella that all work on the same business model: fast fashion that keeps their cost basis down with virtually any measure possible – many unethical and/ or unsustainable.

These eight unethical brands that you should avoid are:

  • Bershka
  • Pull & Bear
  • Stradivarius
  • Oysho
  • Massimo Dutti
  • Uterqüe
  • Zara
  • Zara Home

These fast-fashion brands (Zara Home is the exception here as they specialize in textiles for the home such as bedding, bath linens, and only have some clothing) generally copy high-end designs using poor-quality materials and sell them for cheap–and this is just where the unethical practices begin. Most of these brands also have serious issues with workers’ rights. 

For example, Zara brand’s Brazilian workers are allegedly subjected to slave-like conditions. And this came after the brand was discovered using Turkish sweatshops in Istanbul.

Since these discoveries, Zara has made an effort to have more transparency with their suppliers and has provided worker-empowerment initiatives. However, the brand still is not paying a living wage to workers across its supply chain. But that didn’t prevent them from also showing up on the list of 83 companies found to be benefiting from Uyhgar forced labor. 

To continue with Zara, the brand has been rumored to need only a week to design and manufacture new products, including getting them to retail stores. The industry average for this feat is six months. That’s why it’s called fast-fashion.

But all of the Inditex brands, according to Inditex itself, all of its brands are “united by the Inditex way of doing business.” And indeed, all of its brands have been criticized for the way they all do business unethically. 

Shein

Shein is yet another retailer that steals popular designs and makes cheap copies to sell. However, many customers have complained that the item they receive looks completely different from the picture online. Besides being an unsustainable fast-fashion retailer, Shein is not transparent about animal welfare or environmental impact.

Primark

Primark is an Irish fashion brand that has been heavily criticized for its eco-un-friendly practices. It produces large amounts of waste, has a huge carbon footprint, and uses unsustainable materials. The brand also lacks transparency.

Most of Primark’s products are made in Bangladesh, where there are known issues with sweatshops and workers’ rights. There were even reports in June of 2014 from two customers claiming they found SOS messages stitched into the label of items they had purchased. Primark claimed this was a hoax and denied any wrongdoing. But one customer making this allegation had bought items in Swansea. The other was in China, and the note was from a Chinese prison.

These consistent scandals in modern slavery and child labor have caused many to boycott the brand, forcing changes to its manufacturing processes to save face. But it hasn’t done enough. There is not enough transparency within the supply chain to provide the company with the information needed to improve health and safety. Many workers still don’t receive a living wage, and child labor is still used.

Boohoo

Boohoo was criticized in the UK for encouraging “throwaway clothes culture.” In 2018, the brand was shamed in Parliament because its £5 dresses were so low-quality that even charity shops would not want to resell them. This poor quality is produced in Leicester and Manchester, where, according to The Guardian, workers are earning less than minimum wage.

And like other, low-quality, cheap clothes, Boohoo’s garments are made with unsustainable materials and greatly affect the environment. 

Nasty Gal

Nasty Gal started in 2006 as a vintage resale shop that rapidly grew to be a giant in online retailing. The brand filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and was purchased by Boohoo a year later. Nasty Gal is now one of many fast-fashion brands making cheap, low-quality clothing made from cheap, synthetic materials. 

Although you wouldn’t guess that this brand is fast-fashion, as its site maintains higher than average prices compared to other fast-fashion brands advertised with sale prices. This makes you think you are getting a great deal on high-end clothing when that simply is not the case. 

It does act like other fast-fashion brands in that it fails to offer a lot of information surrounding the impacts of its operations on the environment or people

Missguided

Missguided is another fast-fashion brand out of the UK that made headlines in 2019 for selling £1 bikinis to “celebrate ten years of empowering women.” Of course, this had many questioning how you can produce such a garment ethically. And it’s unlikely that the women workers in the brand’s factories feel empowered when making less than half the minimum wage. In general, the brand has gained a reputation as having no regard for workers’ rights or the environment. 

In 2017, Missguided was discovered to be using illegal fur for its shoes that came from cats, dogs, raccoons, and rabbits. The company has yet to open up transparency about its materials.

Other Popular Brands With Unethical Practices

The Walt Disney Company

Disney makes a lot of clothing as a multinational entertainment and mass media conglomerate. Not only does the brand entertain children around the world, but it also uses them for child labor in sweatshops. Disney is also known to oppress Chinese workers, breach local labor laws, force staff to produce three times the quota, and such acts have driven workers to suicide.

Fashion Nova

Fashion Nova was given the lowest rating by Good On You, scoring ‘very poor’ with an overall ‘we avoid’ due to transparency issues, environmental impact, animal welfare, and labor conditions. 

An investigation was launched in 2016 by the Department of Labor and finally conducted throughout 2019 reported that Fashion Nova was paying workers in LA less than $3 an hour. Many of these workers were undocumented, and therefore, unable to stand up against the discrimination. 

Most of the brand’s success comes from a strong social media presence and endorsements from celebrities/influencers like Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Kylie Jenner, and others. Their support of the brand helped grow Fashion Nova’s sales by 600% in 2017, and it was the most-searched-for fashion brand on Google in 2018. 

Since then, most of the supply chain has been moved overseas. It is likely that we see even more unethical behavior, considering the brand was willing to disregard workers’ rights when it was operating out of California–a place with some of the strictest pro-worker labor laws in the world.

Forever 21

Forever 21 is known for unethical factory practices in Los Angeles. Workers are paid based on the number of garments they produce rather than earning an hourly wage. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. But the amount received per item is so little, even experienced sewers are unable to earn more than $5 or so an hour.

The brand is also known to employ children in Uzbekistan, who are taken out of school and made to work on cotton farms.

In 2019, Forever 21 filed for Chapter 11 and made a deal to sell $81 million in assets a few months later. It closed over 15,000 stores globally but managed to remain in business. It is unclear at this time if they will ultimately survive the economic disaster of 2020.

Pretty Little Thing

Pretty Little Thing gets a gold star for honesty, at least, as it was the brand itself that openly admitted to its customers that its clothes might contain toxic, cancer-causing chemicals. And the brand has a sustainability page on its website; however, it is dedicated to “educating” consumers on how to better care for their clothes. 

Certainly, consumers have a heavy responsibility to do their part by purchasing less and using items longer, but the brands also need to do their part.

The brand has also been accused of removing the labels from cheaper branded items and reselling them as their own at as much as four times the original price. And customers have complained that old collections are often re-launched with celebrity endorsements behind them the second time around. 

Pretty Little Thing does have a sustainable collection that is made from recycled plastic bottles. There are 24 styles in this line. Compared to the over 15,000 styles currently available, that’s roughly 0.1%.

Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters has seen some negative headlines in the past for a variety of reasons. One in particular about its garment factory’s sweatshop-like conditions. The company has even been caught asking employees to work on the weekends for free. And that happened in the United States! One can only imagine what may be happening elsewhere that has yet to be reported on. 

And we may never know for sure because Urban Outfitters provides insufficient evidence to back up its claims about the brand’s environmental and social impact. The brand also uses mostly synthetic fabrics, which are really bad for the environment.

Anthropologie

Anthropologie is owned by URBN, which also owns Urban Outfitters, and is guilty of the same lack of transparency as its parent brand, scoring in the 11-20% block on the Fashion Transparency Index. It is much more expensive than other fast-fashion brands, but that still is all it is. 

Garments are made from polyester and other unsustainable materials, and the brand doesn’t share information on where they are made. Although, many presume the lack of information to be a code for sweatshops.

Free People

Free People is yet another URBN company that is similar to Anthropologie in that it doesn’t seem to be fast-fashion as it is more expensive. The brand has been working in recent years to make improvements in transparency, but there has been a lot of talk with minimal action.

ASOS

ASOS (an acronym for “as seen on screen”) is a British, e-commerce, fast-fashion retailer that sells poor-quality clothes for cheap. The quality is so poor that garments don’t last for very long, contributing greatly to the massive amounts of textile waste we see annually. Most ASOS clothing is made from polyester and other synthetic fabrics that are unsustainable. 

The brand has a decent reputation for its helpful customer service; however, their services usually entail shipping out new items to correct delivery mishaps. This adds a new level to waste in both textiles and unnecessary packaging. 

ASOS even found itself under ethical scrutiny for posting an image on social media in 2019 that depicted a model wearing a dress that was being held together with bulldog’ clips. This sparked outrage and questioning from the brand’s followers, arguing that such images could significantly impact youngsters with body image issues. Many were simply disgusted by how misleading it was in presenting the fit and style of the dress. 

On top of it all, the brand also has implemented sweatshop-like productions within its warehouses and uses child-labor in Turkish factories. Audits are conducted, but they are not thorough enough, and the brand has no transparency with direct suppliers, making little progress to ensure a living wage for its workers. 

Walmart

Walmart may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of clothing companies, but it was once the lead apparel retailer before being outdone by Amazon in 2018. The quality of Walmart clothing is often poor, and garments are thrown into landfills quickly. It’s no secret that the brand has been using sweatshops to produce its merchandise; Walmart was one of a handful of brands that were sourcing from Rana Plaza when the factory collapsed in 2013. 

American Eagle Outfitters

American Eagle Outfitters, despite its patriotic sounding name, manufactures most of its clothes in China. Unfortunately–as we know is true for the fashion industry–this is often at the expense and exploitation of Chinese workers. 

In recent years, the brand has been involved in numerous scandals surrounding its practices in the supply chain. For example, in 2015, it was revealed that sandblasting methods for aging jeans were still being used. This process is extremely dangerous, sometimes fatal, for the garment workers. 

American Eagle made a pledge to consumers a few years ago to improve both its environmental impact and supply chain violations. Any noticeable progress has yet to be seen.

Final Thoughts

As we see more and more clothing companies using unethical practices to capitalize on a global market, we consumers must do our part to avoid supporting these brands and put pressure on them to change the way they do business. This year, search for smaller and local brands with ethical and sustainable practices from which you can purchase clothing and, in the process, force unethical clothing companies to alter their behavior. 

Stay impactful,



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