Main Menu - New April 14

  • Twitter
  • Facebook

Fast fashion – can you keep up with global trends sustainably and ethically?

The stream of fast fashion hitting Australian shores is about to become a deluge. How do these mega brands stack up when it comes to fair working conditions and sustainable practices?


Photo: Gratisography


The international fashion brands are coming  are here!

Last Saturday, 5 April, international clothing mega-retailer H&M launched a huge store in Melbourne, it’s first in Australia. They’re not alone among the international fast and affordable clothing retailers to take aim at Australia. Japanese brand Uniqlo’s first Australia store is set to open, also in Melbourne, on 14 April, with reports that they have a total of 25 stores on the way. Zara and Top Shop opened stores in Sydney and Melbourne last year, and Forever 21 has announced plans for its first Australian store for Brisbane in mid 2014.

Last year, Otter published a quick review of the environmental and social sustainability of global fashion retailers. With all these new developments it’s a great time to look again at the performance of the major international clothing brands recently (or soon to be) available in Australia. Of course no one has to shop at these brands, so we’ve also ranked one of the most online sites, ASOS, and thrown in some fashion alternatives with good rankings for sustainability.

Who’s keeping tabs, and on what?

Rank a Brand is a European non government organisation that conducts ratings of hundreds of consumer brands based on a detailed methodology that considers labour practices, climate change, and other environmental issues; it ranks brands from A (best) to E (worst). Feel Good Fashion is a report released this month (April 2014) on trends in Rank A Brand’s rankings of 368 fashion brands.

The Australian Ethical Fashion Guide is based on the The Truth Behind the Barcode report  released in August 2013. It ranks 41 brands available in Australia on how well they “prevent worker exploitation and modern slavery”. It looks at three key issues: an overall grade on labour management practices based on 61 criteria assessed by the Free 2 Work project (a joint effort by Baptist World Aid and the Not for Sale organisation), whether companies pay a living wage, and whether companies do enough to avoid using Uzbekistani cotton which is picked using forced child labour. The Ethical Fashion Guide ranks brands from A+ to E-.

Ethical Consumers UK is a long standing UK non profit with a comprehensive ethical rating system. They consider the environmental, human and animal impacts of the brands on clothing manufacture. Brands are given a score out of 20.

Shop Ethical brings together 50 sources (including some of the above) to provides information on the environmental and social record of companies behind the brand names of common products available in Australia.

Ethical Clothing Australia accredits Australian made clothing that complies with labour standards.

In summary the key issues reviewed are:

  • the impact of clothing manufacture on workers (all of the above sources touch on this issue)
  • the impact of the production of raw materials on the farmers who produce them, and their communities (again, looked at by all above sources)
  • climate change and other impacts on the environment, such as water use and the pollution and toxic side effects of non organic cotton production (Rank a Brand and Ethical Consumers UK take this into consideration)
  • the impact on animals (Ethical Consumers UK marks down brands for their use of silk, leather, and Australian Merino wool: “which often involves the cruel practice of mulesing”).

The rankings

Rank a brand

Labour rights, climate change and environment

Brand Ranking
Zara C
Uniqlo Not rated
Top Shop Not rated
Forever 21 Not rated

The best ranked brands available in Australia are Pants to Poverty (A), Nudie (A) and G-Star (B)

The Truth Behind the Barcode

Labour rights

Brand Ranking
Zara A-
H&M B+
Forever 21 D
(all other brands not rated)

The best ranked brands available in Australia are Etiko (A+) and 3 Fish (A). Hanes, Inditex and Timberland rank equal with Zara on A-.

 Ethical Consumers UK

Labour rights, environment, animal welfare and more

Brand Ranking
H&M 9/20
Uniqlo 8.5/20
Zara 8/20
ASOS 6.5/20
Topshop 6/20
Forever 21 Not rated

Ratings shown here are the average of 1 , 2 or 3 different ratings shown on ECUK , eg for different lines

Shop Ethical (Australia)

Shop Ethical’s sources on these brands mainly focus on labour rights and some environmental considerations

Brand Ranking
Topshop Lesser criticism
H&M Criticisms, Praise
Zara Criticism, Praise
Forever 21 Criticism
ASOS no current ranking
Uniqlo no current ranking

See Shop Ethical’s key to their ratings.

Shop Ethical also list 16 “outstanding” products/brands available in Australia. These include 3Fish and Etiko but also some brands with wider ranges including Cue, Anthea Crawford and Carla Zampatti. Here’s the full list.

The bottom line

If you (or your family members) want to shop at an international fashion brand, then H&M pips Zara and Uniqlo. If you care about labour rights and the environment these three are generally better options than Forever 21.


You could of course look for brands that have been ranked highest. These include Etiko, Cue, Nudie, Pants to Poverty, Timberland and G-Star. Check out Shop Ethical for the full list.

Ethical Clothing Australia promotes ethical working practices for Australian made garments, where homeworkers are often exploited despite Australian labour laws. Accredited brands include Cue, Anthea Crawford, Carla Zampatti and Ginger&Smart. Check out the full list here.

Can it ever be “sustainable fashion”

Some wonder whether “fashion” can ever be sustainable given the conflict between ever-changing fashion trends and the need for clothing to last for it to be sustainable.

Writing for Ethical Consumers UK Ruth Rosselson points out that the Ethical Fashion Forum [UK] has a list of criteria for ethical fashion. However, she says, “although it addresses environmental, sustainability and animal rights issues, there is not a criterion for whether clothes are designed to be durable – in both manufacture AND design. The fact is that ethical fashion is an oxymoron. If it’s ‘fashionable’, then almost by definition it’s transient and disposable (unless that style comes back in fashion).”

Antidotes to fast fashion including choosing “classic” styles that stay in fashion, buying less but better quality, and making sure clothes get reused through clothes swaps or regular wardrobe spring cleans – see the Tips for Eco Conscious Fashion in our earlier article (scroll down).



2 Responses to Fast fashion – can you keep up with global trends sustainably and ethically?

  1. Qinnie April 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    Great article! I often notice that smaller independent designers have much better ethical approach to business, and I much prefer to shop with them. Cheap, fast and throw away fashion culture is not only bad for the environment but also unfair to the workers. Ethical Fashion is a natural progression of the Fair Trade Movement, something I’m passionate about.

  2. Amelia Hoskins April 15, 2014 at 5:40 pm #

    Please put a Google Plus ‘share’ button on your blog.
    Its great to hear how comprehensive Australia is being by giving bandings to fashion companies. Then people can make a choice. Thanks for printing this.

Leave a Reply