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What makes fashion brands unethical?

Here we highlight five reasons why fashion is unethical and look at the brands that help give the industry its unethical reputation.

Many consumers are aware that when fashion brands sell new items with a tiny price tag, it’s a warning that ethics were probably compromised somewhere along the line. Even the less-fast brands are often involved in some form of unethical activity, whether it’s violations of workers’ rights or serious environmental damage.

In this article, we identify and explore five key issues to consider when deciding whether to buy clothing from any brand. Researching a brand’s approach to these issues can help consumers identify how ethical (or unethical) it is:

  • workers’ rights abuses
  • animal exploitation
  • heavy carbon emissions
  • unethical cotton sourcing
  • polluting materials. 

We also highlight actions you can take to help transform the sector as a whole.

Garment workers protest in Bangladesh
Protest by garment workers in Bangladesh, copyright Clean Clothes Campaign

1. Workers’ rights abuses

In the bid to mass produce cheap clothing quickly, sourcing from countries where the national minimum wage is significantly below what is needed to live a comfortable life, and people are forced to work in unsafe conditions, is common practice. 

Clothing brands contribute to mass worker exploitation by squeezing suppliers to lower prices; enforcing deadlines that can’t realistically be met in an ethical way; and paying suppliers months after receipt of products. Some even refuse to pay up until the stock has been sold. 

“The ways that fashion brands buy clothes and textiles causes job losses, poverty wages, excessive overtime, and unsafe working conditions for the people who make our clothes all over the world”, according to Fiona Gooch of Traidcraft Exchange.

Amazon, Boohoo, Missguided, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx and White Stuff all scored a worst Ethical Consumer rating for Supply Chain Management. Shein was particularly notable because it barely discussed its supply chain at all.

Worker exploitation in the fashion industry shot to the forefront of global consciousness in 2013 with the collapse of the Rana Plaza building. This building in Bangladesh contained five garment factories, and was constructed using sub-standard materials and poor structural planning. The collapse killed at least 1,132 people, and 2,500 were injured.

Many companies committed to initiatives to improve conditions for workers through the Bangladesh Accords. However, this is a voluntary initiative (which many big brands such as Amazon, Gap and Missguided never signed). 

In countries where the minimum wage is significantly lower than the living wage (six times lower in Bangladesh), even if workers are paid the legal minimum wage they are technically being paid at poverty levels (below what is needed to meet basic needs and live a healthy life). The smallest decrease in pay, failure to pay overtime rates or a bonus, or delayed payment from the employer, can push workers and families into destitution. These low wages therefore limit (or entirely remove) workers’ ability to speak out about dangerous or exploitative working conditions because of the damage even a slightest decrease in their pay packet might have.

Underpayment of garment workers is a global problem: in many garment factories in Pakistan workers regularly earn less than the legal minimum wage, health and safety is virtually non-existent, and workers have been discriminated against or unfairly dismissed - as was seen during the pandemic when workers lost their jobs without compensation. 

The following brands lost a whole mark under Workers’ Rights in our guide to High Street Clothing: & Other Stories, Amazon, ASOS, Bershka, Boohoo, Burton, Coast, COS, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Gap, H&M, I Saw It First, Karen Millen, Maine New England,  M&S, Massimo Dutti, Missguided, MissPap, Miss Selfridge, Monki, NastyGal, New Look, Next, Oasis, Oysho, Pretty Little Thing, Primark, Pull & Bear, Quiz, Shein, Stradivarius, TK Maxx, Topman, Topshop, Uniqlo, Wallis, Warehouse, and Zara.

Take action

Sign Traidcraft Exchange’s petition for a new #FashionWatchdog that will hold UK garment retailers to higher standards.


2. Animal exploitation

Cows, silk worms, sheep, alpaca, rabbits, ducks, geese, insects and a host of other species are mobilised to produce the clothes on hangers on the high street.

Animals are used for their skins (leather), wool, feathers and down, colouring (to make clothing dyes), glues, silk and more.

Making clothing as cheap as possible so it can be sold at low prices comes at a cost for animal welfare. For example, it costs less to factory farm an animal than to provide them with space to roam and forage.

Animals are sometimes also bred or kept in highly controlled or uncomfortable conditions, so that they produce more of the product the farmer wants to sell. Take for example merino wool, which is often sourced from Australia. Merino sheep are specifically bred to have wrinkled skin, which means more wool per animal. Attracted to the moisture, flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. In order to prevent this condition called “flystrike,” Australian ranchers perform 'mulesing' which involves carving huge strips of skin and flesh off the backs of unanesthetized lambs’ legs and around their tails. This is done to cause smooth, scarred skin that won’t harbor fly eggs, yet the bloody wounds often get flystrike before they heal.

Regardless of whether the animal is used for skin, wool, or any other ingredient, once they age and cease to produce the same yields they are typically killed or sent to slaughter.

Some brands claim that they only use animal-derived materials that are a byproduct of the meat industry. Since the company profits from the cow’s skin just like it does from its meat or milk, however, some would argue that ‘coproduct’ is a more accurate word.

Some animal rights advocates believe that animal products can never be sourced ethically, because animals cannot give consent for their bodies or produce to be taken.

Every company included in the guide lost a whole mark for Animal Rights, with the exceptions of In the Style, Nobody’s Child, and Quiz, which had welfare policies addressing the materials they used and so only lost half a mark.

Shein’s website states that it has a “strict no animal policy”, however we found this to be a patently false statement. It did not appear to sell animal skins (leather) or fur, but several products contained animal-derived substances such as silk, wool and down. No animal welfare policies were found surrounding the sourcing of these.

Take action

Ask your MP to support a #FurFreeBritain.

Pollution from industry and shipping

3. Heavy carbon emissions

Clothing production has serious carbon impacts and is said to amount to between 2% and 10% of global emissions.

Most of the emissions of clothes are produced during the production of the fabric. Wool is the the most emission-heavy material (according to a WRAP analysis from 2012), followed by acrylic and viscose. Polyester and cotton, however, have the biggest global impact because of the quantity used (combined they account for three quarters of all fibre in clothing).

Dyeing is especially energy intensive as it requires heating of large amounts of water, and spinning and weaving use a lot of electricity. The world’s leading clothing exporter is China, which exports over a third of the global total. Coal is the most-used fuel for electricity in China, so a lot of fossil fuels are burned in the material production stage for clothing.

In our High Street Clothing guide, Boohoo, Finisterre, I Saw It First, Missguided, New Look, Nobody’s Child, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx, and White Stuff and all received worst ratings under the Carbon Management and Reporting category.

Boohoo reports its emissions but gives no information about how it intends to meet its reduction goals. TK Maxx does not discuss emissions within its supply chain, or include supply chain emissions in its reduction targets. Nobody’s Child, Finisterre, New Look and Quiz don’t report their supply chain emissions and have poor discussion around their emissions. 

The worst of all are I Saw It First, Missguided, Shein and White Stuff: these do not report on or discuss their emissions at all.

Despite the heavy price people and the planet are paying for the carbon cost of clothing, thanks to fast fashion culture people often only wear clothes a few times before discarding them and buying something new.

Take action

Plan a clothes swap - you can swap clothes for free or use it to raise funds for a worthy cause.

Cotton growing in field

4. Unethical cotton sourcing

While commonly used, cotton is a highly contentious fabric due to its connections with forced labour. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are two of the world’s largest cotton exporters, and their governments forcibly mobilise citizens to grow and harvest cotton. 

The situation has now improved in Uzbekistan and in March 2022 it was announced that the long-running boycott of Uzbek cotton was being lifted. For the first time, in the 2021 cotton harvest, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights found no government-sponsored forced labour. This came five years after the Uzbek Government first entered into negotiations with campaigners to work towards ending the boycott.

In Turkmenistan forced labour continues to be widespread.

Many companies pledge not to source from these regions, either in their company policies or through making a pledge via the Responsible Sourcing Network.

In our High Street Clothing guide, companies lost half a mark under the Workers’ Rights category if they lacked a policy prohibiting the use of cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Several brands had no policy at all connected to sourcing cotton from these countries. 

Nobody’s Child prohibits use of cotton from both countries; and Inditex, Patagonia, TK Maxx and Uniqlo have banned Uzbek cotton but do not prohibit the use of Turkmen cotton. 

The same issue of forced labour in cotton picking has now emerged in China, with the Chinese government forcing the Uyghur and other predominantly-Muslim ethnic minorities in China to pick cotton. 

Since at least 2017, the Chinese state has persecuted Uyghur and other predominantly-Muslim ethnic minorities in the northwestern region. Between 1 and 1.8 million Uyghurs are believed to have been held in camps, in the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since the second world war. Thousands of others are being forced to work in the cotton industry in the Uyghur Region, or in manufacturing in other regions of China.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region claims that the Uyghur Region produces around 20% of the world’s cotton, and studies link around 20% of garments to Uyghur forced labour. 

The Coalition lists the following brands as having committed to exiting from the Uyghur region: ASOS, Marks & Spencer, and Reformation. Some brands have been criticised for not taking a stance on the issue, or for taking a stance and then revoking it (such as Inditex, parent company of Zara).

Take action

Email brands such as Inditex, Patagonia, TK Maxx and Uniqlo thanking them for prohibiting Uzbek Cotton and asking them to sign up to the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Turkmen Cotton Pledge.

Scarf with polyester material labelling

5. Polluting materials

Cotton is not only a human rights issue - it’s also a cause for environmental concern. 6% of global pesticides and 16% of insecticides used globally are used in cotton production, and nearly three quarters of the world’s cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. This results in reduced biodiversity.

The fashion sector is also awash with fabrics that contain plastics such as acrylic, elastane, nylon and polyester. Use of these synthetic fibres has doubled between 2000 and 2020.

The RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) found that the average item sold by ASOS, Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Thing was “at least half plastic and that as many as 88% of the items listed on some websites contain ‘virgin’ plastics.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation claims that clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean annually. This is equivalent to over 50 billion plastic bottles. 

Campaigners are targeting viscose clothing (also sometimes labelled as bamboo or rayon) due to its highly polluting manufacturing process. 

In our Pollution & Toxics rating we expect brands to use 100% sustainably sourced materials. The worst-scoring companies include Amazon, Boohoo Group, I Saw It First, In The Style, Missguided, New Look, Quiz, Shein, TK Maxx and White Stuff.

In our feature on sustainable fabrics, we highlight the best and worst materials when it comes to ethical and environmental impact. We suggest that acrylic, leather, polyester, nylon, silk, elastane, conventional bamboo, conventional viscose, rayon, or modal, conventional cotton and wool are all worth avoiding. 

Take action

Sign Friends Of The Earth’s petition demanding a new law to end plastic pollution.

How to choose ethical clothing

Our guide to Ethical Clothing Brands provides the A-Z of the leading ethical brands, including those that sell second-hand, use organic materials, and are fairly traded. 

However, clothes swaps, making your own clothes, upcycling, repairing and renting are by far the best choice for those who have the time and ability to do so.

Read our guide to High Street Clothes Shops to avoid shopping with the brands with poor commitment to people and planet.