Are These Unethical Fashion Brands Hiding in Your Closet?

Fashion industry workers working in a factory

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Sweatshops are a hidden reality in an increasingly globalized world. It's difficult to know under what conditions your shirt was made, especially when it comes from halfway around the world. Of course, it's important to point out that while many sweatshops are neither owned nor operated by the big companies, it shouldn't excuse them from turning a blind eye to labour or human rights violations or acting accordingly. As clients of such factories, these companies (and we consumers) have the greater power ultimately to pressure for safer and fairer working conditions: by putting your money where your mouth is. To help you make a more informed and ethical choice for a more equitable planet, here are seven fashion brands suspected of using sweatshops and unethical labor practices that need to work harder to clean up their act.


Based in Sweden, this international clothing giant employs 68,000 people globally in 1,400 stores spread over 29 countries. The year 2010 has been less than flattering for H&M;: First, its New York City megastore was exposed for cutting up unsold merchandise -- like warm coats -- and dumping them in unmarked bags -- all in the middle of a frigid winter. Then the German edition of the Financial Times revealed that H&M; was committing organic cotton fraud. Finally, in early March, The Independent reported a Bangladeshi sweatshop factory supplying H&M; caught fire, killing 21 workers who had been working late into the night to meet a quota. The fire exits had been blocked and the fire extinguishing equipment non-functioning.

2. Abercrombie & Fitch

With preppy, casual clothing targeted mainly at teens and young adults, this American fashion retailer has made headlines in recent years with its discriminatory hiring procedures, reports CBS News, its culturally-insensitive and controversial t-shirts accused of being sexist -- in addition to its less-than-humane labour practices.

According to CBC News and Behind The Label, in 2002 Abercrombie & Fitch was one company that settled a class-action lawsuit which alleged that companies like Target, Gap, J.C. Penney and Abercrombie & Fitch had benefited from sweatshop labour in the U.S. territory of Saipan, an island located in the Pacific which sets its own immigration laws.

Migrant workers were apparently misled to come to the U.S. territory with false promises of finding a good job on American soil, only to be forced to repay recruitment fees of up to $7,000 by sewing clothes 12 hours per day, seven days a week. Workers were also made to sign contracts that prohibited them from asking for a raise, participating in religious or political activity, having a baby, or getting married -- an ironic far cry from A&F;'s signature party slogans emblazoned on their clothing.

A decade later, the water is still murky: In 2009 Abercrombie & Fitch earned a place on International Labor Rights Forum's Sweatshop Hall of Shame as well as Corporate Responsibility's list of zero-transparency corporations.

3.The Gap (Old Navy & Banana Republic)

With scores of stores worldwide, U.S.-based chain The Gap is a retailing heavyweight, with profits totaling $15.9 billion in 2007. In the same year, The Telegraph details how a raid on a New Delhi factory found children as young as eight sewing clothes destined for Gap stores.

As mentioned above, in 2000, a Senate subcommittee hearing revealed that the Gap was contracting work out to Chinese and Korean-owned factories on the U.S. territory of Saipan. This loophole allowed the Gap to cut labour costs drastically while still producing clothes that are technically "Made in USA." The factories employed mainly young Chinese women to work in poor conditions and forced pregnant workers to get abortions in order for them to keep working, reports ABC News.

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