Not all fast fashion stores are created equal.
They all have the same basic problems: abusive worker conditions, pollution, low-quality clothes that end up in the trash, and designer knockoffs that devalue the originals. But that doesn’t mean some brands aren’t trying to improve.
H&M: Making Progress
In 2011, the company committed to getting rid of all hazardous chemicals from its manufacturing process by 2020. In an effort to be more transparent, it’s also regularly releasing a list of all the chemicals its suppliers use.
And because cotton pesticides wreak havoc on the environment, H&M has also pledged to get all of its cotton from “sustainable sources” by 2020, meaning it will either be organic, recycled, or from the Better Cotton Initiative.
What about the fact that so many of its clothes end up in the trash? The company has started a “global garment initiative” where people can turn in used clothes of any brand. H&M says there are three options for the clothes it collects—they’ll be sold as second-hand, turned into other products (like cleaning cloths), or repurposed as textile fibers.
In 2013, H&M collected more than 3,000 tons of used clothing, or the equivalent of 15 million T-shirts.
Finally, the retailer is addressing the unfair treatment of garment workers. Well, kind of.
“We are focusing on our strategic suppliers to start with. Our goal is that all of them should have improved pay structures for fair living wages in place by 2018. This will affect around 850,000 textile workers,” the company says.
While this sounds good, I think it’s a cop-out. H&M needs to make sure all of its suppliers pay their workers the bare minimum. And that’s just to begin—the company must ensure that working conditions are safe, so we don’t have another Rana Plaza incident.
Forever 21: Better Than Nothing?
Its sustainability efforts leave much to be desired—the conglomerate has installed LED lights in new stores to reduce energy use, shipped goods by sea instead of air to cut down on carbon emissions, and recycled all the boxes at its distribution center. If you’re waiting for more, well, me too.
Forever 21’s fair labor policies are only a little better. After getting nailed by the Labor Department in 2012 for the “sweatshop like conditions” of many of its manufacturers, the company established what it calls a “highly trained Vendor Compliance Team.” This team conducts random inspections of Forever 21’s foreign suppliers and makes sure the “Vendor Compliance Standards” are being followed.
However, Forever 21 isn’t using any of its economic clout to help shape its workers lives for the better. And I’m definitely not convinced its Vendor Compliance Team is enough to ensure fair working conditions.
I did see that in the past three years Forever 21 has donated more than $9.5 million to various charities, including the Humane Society and Big Brothers Big Sisters. But since its yearly revenue is around $3.5 billion, I’m not impressed.
Basically, Forever 21 could be doing way, way more, both to help the environment and its workers.
Uniqlo: A Mixed Bag
I have good news and bad news for those of who you love this Japanese brand’s minimal aesthetic and bright colors.
The good news is that Uniqlo is making efforts to be more green. Unlike many fast fashion retailers, who work with hundreds and hundreds of suppliers, Uniqlo works with just 70. That allows the company to keep closely monitor and improve quality and waste-reduction efforts. Uniqlo is currently working on becoming as energy-efficient as possible through every part of the garment production process, from fabric dyeing and sewing to reusable packaging and store air-conditioning. Talk about top to bottom!
In addition, like H&M, Uniqlo has pledged to completely eliminate hazardous emissions by 2020.
But here comes the bad news. Uniqlo is apathetic towards its workers—it hasn’t participated in any of the talks for improving worker conditions in Bangladesh, although Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, is the world’s fourth largest retailer and manufacturers a ton of clothes in Bangladesh. Uniqlo also is not a member of the Fair Labor Association or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
The best Uniqlo can say is that it “always produces clothing under socially acceptable working conditions,” which is purposely ambiguous. I’m comforted.
The Final Call
Out of these three fast fashion companies, H&M is the clear winner for its across-the-board efforts to be more socially responsible. Uniqlo takes second: it’s friendly to the environment, not so much to its employees. Forever 21 comes in dead last; it seems safe to say the company barely cares.
Is fast fashion ever a great choice? Not really—the nature of the industry means a cheap shirt is always going to have some negative impacts. However, if I’m going to buy one, now I know where to go.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter: @ajavuu.