Is Free People Ethical or Just Another Fast Fashion Brand?

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When you walk into a clothing store, what's the first thing you look for? For many people, it's the price tags.

We all want a good deal, but sometimes we forget to ask ourselves whether or not we're comfortable with where our money is going.

In this article, I take a closer look at Free People, an American clothing brand that has been under fire in recent years for its questionable ethical practices.

Are Free People really as ethical as it’s like you to believe, or has its image been greenwashed within an inch of its life?

I've done the research and found the answers for you.

What Is Free People?

Dick Hayne launched Free People in the 1970s. He wanted to offer young people a bohemian style of clothing that they could be proud of.

Today, Free People is a subsidiary of URBN, which owns brands such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. They market to young females who are bright, creative, and self-assured.

How Ethical Is Free People?

Environmental Impact

The first thing you should ask yourself before shopping at any store is what their environmental impact is. Consider things like:

  • How do they source their materials?
  • What kind of packaging do they use?
  • How much energy and water do they consume in their manufacturing process?

URBN (the parent company that owns Free People) has taken some steps to lower its carbon output across its portfolio, including:

  • Using energy-efficient LED lighting in stores
  • Encouraging the use of reusable shopping bags
  • Improving fuel efficiency in transport,
  • Using renewable energy

But, Free People offers limited options for clothes made from eco-friendly materials (I’d like to see more organic cotton) and has made no commitments to reduce its carbon emissions.

There is also no sign of them attempting to reduce the use of toxic chemicals or reduce their water usage.

Free People also appear to be adopting a fast fashion business model. This involves regularly churning out lots of new styles and designs, usually made from poor quality and non-sustainable materials that will quickly end up in the landfill when the consumer moves onto the next fast fashion fad.

You can read more about fast fashion and why it's bad here.

Labor Conditions

The next thing to consider is labor conditions. Things like:

  • Are the workers in the factories paid fair wages?
  • Do they have access to basic amenities like clean water and toilets?
  • Are they working in safe conditions?
  • Are working protected by a third party scheme such as Fairtrade and  Fair Trade Certified.

Free People does not have any Fairtrade certified products and has been criticized for its lack of transparency regarding the conditions in its supply chain.

The brand was also caught up in the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse, killing over 1,000 people. At the time, Free People was sourcing from a supplier that operated out of the building.

While the brand has made some efforts to improve conditions for workers in its supply chain, it still has a long way to go. It was given a score of 11-20% in the Fashion Transparency Index, which shows there is still much room for improvement.

Animal Welfare

Another vital consideration is animal welfare. Things like:

  • Do they use fur?
  • Do they use leather?
  • Do they test their products on animals?

Free People has made progress in this area. For example, in 2016, they committed to stop using angora (a type of wool harvested from rabbits often kept in tiny cages and plucked alive).

However, they still use other animal-derived materials (leather, wool,  animal hair, leather, etc.) from unspecified sources. The welfare of the animals involved in producing these materials can not be guaranteed if the company don't have a way of tracking where they came from.

Social Responsibility

Free People are taking part in initiatives to boost its social responsibility (see The Final Word for more details).

However, the full details are vague. It's unclear how much money has been allocated to these projects or how long they’ll run.

Size Inclusivity

Free People’s core product range comes in sizes XS-XL.

Some ranges do come in smaller and bigger sizes, so I feel Free People are doing ok in terms of size inclusivity.

However, there is a big issue with size inclusivity in the fashion industry, and there is always room for improvement. I’d like to see them increase their size options across the core range.

Diversity

Free People were criticized in 2016 for appropriating Native American culture.

It now has a Diversity & Inclusivity Committee (see The Final Word for more details). The long-term goals of the committee are unstated and unclear.

Other Fast Fashion Brands To Avoid

It’s not just Free People. Many fast fashion brands have questionable or unquantified eco-credentials and business ethics.

Arabella covers this in more detail in her 20 Fast Fashion Brands to Avoid (and Why) article.

Sustainable Fashion Alternatives To Free People

There’s no doubt that the traditional fashion industry is in a mess right now.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of ethical alternatives.

Check out our list of eco-friendly clothing brands that deserve your green dollar.

Also, consider shopping with artisanal and small businesses rather than big brands.

These smaller brands often have more control over their supply chains and support local projects in their own backyard.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Are Free People Clothes Manufactured?

The majority of Free People's clothing is made in India.

What Type Of Brand Is Free People?

Free People is a brand specializing in “Women's Boho Clothing & Bohemian Fashion”. They operate a fast fashion model.

Do Free People Jeans Run Small?

I didn’t want to add to the fast fashion problem by purchasing Free People items to test, so I don’t have any hands-on experience with their sizings.

However, looking at the reviews, it does seem that their jeans run small.

The Final Word

I set out to answer the question "is Free People ethical" and I think the answer is clear.

Weighing up all research, I can only come to one conclusion. Free People can not yet be considered an ethical brand.

In recent years, the company has made an effort to improve its ethics with social and eco-friendly initiatives such as:

These initiatives are great. They show that Free People are aware of their bad image and are trying to do something about it.

That's part of my concert with Free People, though. Are they really trying to become an ethical brand, or are they simply taking part in cheap and easy initiatives to greenwash their image and move away from the bad press?

If they want to take their ethics and sustainability to the next level, they’ll become B Corp certified. Also, Free People’s supply chain and labor practices would be more ethical if they committed to only working with Fair Trade suppliers and manufacturers.

Yes, getting these certifications for sustainable brands is time-consuming and costly. But, it's a cost that the brand could easily absorb.

Taking this next step is essential if Free People want to be taken seriously as an ethical and sustainable brand.

Get In Touch

Do you shop at Free People? Are you happy with their sustainability policies? Do you feel I'm being a bit harsh? Drop me a line and let me know.

James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.
James Miller
James is a senior editor at The Roundup and has been in journalism for over 10 years. He was born in the UK but raised in Florida, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. James is passionate about sustainable living and environmental issues which are reflected by his work as an editor of TheRoundup.org.

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