11 Of Your Favorite Clothing Brands That Use Sweatshop Labor

It’s harder than ever to avoid buying clothes that were made unethically. We’re living in a world of fast fashion, and to keep up with consumer demand for new trends every couple of months, clothing companies are producing more product than ever. But how do stores like H&M manage to sell their clothes for such cheap prices? How are designer labels able to mass produce some of their products so swiftly? Why are so few garments made in the US? Well, a lot of that is due to a little thing called cheap, exploitative labor.

Honestly, things get really complicated really quickly when it comes to a company’s ethical labor practices. Back in the ’90s, there were tons of protests directed toward companies like GAP and Nike for their use of sweatshop labor. Now? There’s a lot less clamoring about that than there used to be. There are a lot of reasons for that, including different economies and less clothing brand options. It’s a whole new ballgame. Then there’s cost to consider. Look at it this way: If the average person has to choose between spending $54 on a mini skirt at American Apparel–sweatshop free and made in the USA–versus spending $10.50 at H&M–prone to labor violations and sketchy clothing origins–where will they buy the skirt? Uh, definitely not American Apparel.

Many companies are doing little things here and there to gain better reputations about their labor practices, but something still stinks. Company websites tout cleanliness and fair practices of the factories of their suppliers, but lets be real: how vigilant are the folks at the top of the food chain at H&M really going to be about a factory in Bangladesh? Especially when their clothes are made in Bangladeshi factories that catch fire and cause the deaths of over 100 people thanks to poorly designed working conditions? What about a factory collapse that kills over 1,000 people? LOL, as if.

A while back I wrote a post about ethical clothing companies that are producing clothing that isn’t made under back breaking, inhumane conditions. What I didn’t mention was how hard it was to find many companies that were a) sweatshop free b) transparent about how their clothes were made and c) didn’t have items that cost hundred and hundred of dollars. Unfortunately, some of your favorite clothing stores have had a nasty habit of allowing their clothes to be made in sweatshops, underpaying and mistreating factory workers, and generally being sketchy af. Does that mean you’re evil if you shop at these stores? No, and it takes a lot more than not shopping at Forever 21 to change this messy system. But if you want to avoid giving so much of your money to companies that product their clothes unethically, avoid these 11 clothing stores and brands.


1. H&M

A photo posted by H&M (@hm) on

When you Google sweatshop brands, it’s impossible to come across one that doesn’t mention H&M. H&M’s clothing is made primarily in Bangladesh, a country with a dark history when it comes to labor practices of its factory workers. The brand’s suppliers have consistently skimped on safety regulations for their employees, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of factory workers in the past few years alone. Yes, people who probably sewed the hems on your H&M jeans might have died in a factory fire, for disgustingly low wages. H&M claims that it will make sure its employees are paid a living wage by 2018, and their “green” friendly lines attempt to make their customers aware of the importance of environmentalism, but time will tell if H&M actually gets its you know what together so that more people don’t end up, uh, dead.


2. Zara

A photo posted by ZARA Official (@zara) on

Zara keeps getting into hot water. In 2011, they were accused to using “slave labor” to produce its clothing, paying far below minimum wage to its employees. Not long after that, nothing seemed to have changed, because they were once again in trouble for rights violations, employing children, and forcing its employees to work for over 12 hours straight. Yikes.


3. Forever 21

A photo posted by forever21 (@forever21) on

Most of Forever 21’s clothes are made in Asia, and about 20 to 30 percent are made in the United States. But having clothes made in the USA hasn’t avoided “sweatshop-like” conditions. Back in 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor discovered that a Los Angeles factory producing clothes for a variety of companies, including Forever 21, was underpaying its workers and often forcing them to work for over 10 hours without overtime. One employee even claimed that she wasn’t paid by the hour, but rather per item sewn; she was allegedly paid 12 cents for a vest that sold for $13.80. Honestly, there seems to be quite a few stories of Forever 21 being beyond sketchy.

4. Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters was another one of the brands that had clothing made in those sweatshop-like factories that I just mentioned. Surprise surprise.


5. Aldo

A photo posted by ALDO shoes (@aldo_shoes) on

And so was Aldo. Yeah, your shoes aren’t safe either.


6. GAP (w/Old Navy and Banana Republic)

A photo posted by Gap (@gap) on

GAP has been at the center of this anti-sweatshop fight since the ’90s. GAP is more transparent than it used to be and has made more of an effort to make sure that its garment workers are treated humanely. GAP even donated millions of dollars to the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed over 1000 people. But garment workers at factories that make GAP clothing still protest and strike. Why? Their wages are absolute garbage. Plus, they can’t even unionize. GAP has a long way to go before it is as humane as it seems.


7. Primark

A photo posted by Primark (@primark) on

The Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1130 people, many of whom helped make clothing for UK fast fashion brand, Primark. While Primark was one of the first companies to come out and donate money to the victims of the tragedy…but even then, victims could only obtain Primark’s money if they provided DNA evidence that their loved one was killed. Uh, harsh.


8. Adidas

It’s not just Nike or Puma that gets a lot of flack for producing sportswear in harsh conditions. According to Oxfam, Adidas supplies thousands of its garment workers with poverty wages. On top of that, they’re bad at, upholding trade union rights.”


9. Victoria’s Secret

Apparently the higher ups of Victoria’s Secret didn’t know that the cotton that was picked for the company’s organic, free-trade cotton program was picked by…wait for it…children! Yes, allegedly, a dash of forced child labor went into your fave organic VS undies. Honestly, I wish I was surprised to hear this, but given how awful VS is for things as simple as a bra fitting, I’m not surprised that their oversight is evident in more pressing matters as well.


10. Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart has–fairly–been called out for its history of underpaying and exploiting employees, but little is known about the origins of its cheap clothing. Well, unfortunately, Wal-Mart brand clothing was also made at the site of the Rana Plaza collapse, though Wal-Mart claims they had no idea that its clothing was made there. In the company’s defense, it has, in the past, decided to opt out of producing its clothing at sites that it deemed inhumane and unsafe, but who knows what else slips between the cracks.


11. Uniqlo

A photo posted by uniqlousa (@uniqlousa) on

Uniqlo, a Japanese based fast-fashion company, has its eyes set on conquering the US market. A few years ago, its only US location was in NYC. But now it is expanding, but at what cost? Well, apparently at the cost of garment employees, because they work in really crappy conditions. The Chinese factory where many of their clothes are made features disgustingly long hours, low pay, awful working environment, cruel treatment from management…yeah, sounds like a sweatshop to me. Employees claimed that they were paid just a third of their average monthly salary. Uh, WTF, Uniqlo? Screw your cozy clothes, pay your workers.


What other brands use sweatshop labor? Do you avoid certain brands due to their sweatshop labor practices? Why or why not? Do you have any recommendations of brands or stores that don’t use sweatshop labor? Tell us in the comments!

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  • Lawliet

    wheres nike

  • Darren Latimer

    It’s a good point, and one of the things that we have to consider as consumers if that our ‘want’ to get a bargain helps lead to this too.

    It’s interesting to read the comments that M&S and Next are not on the list, as those two places charge a little more than others! There is generally a link with this…

    I was actually in the new Primark on Thursday morning and saw a pair of sleepers, £4 and the very though that went through my mind was I wonder what conditions the people who produced them work in!

    Now Primark might not be guilty of doing such a thing, the trouble is it’s not easy to know, although they are clearly on that list, which certainly doesn’t surprise me.

    Maybe going forward, having some kind of label system that stipulates that the workers were treated to a certain level would be a great idea, that way we as consumers could make an ethical choice.

    Something like the Fair Trade scheme, but a Fair Treatment scheme.

  • Chere Di Boscio

    This article isn’t really that accurate, unfortunately. Zara, H&M and other major high street labels have gone through great pains to improve their labour practices and ecological footprint http://eluxemagazine.com/fashion/worst-brands-for-sweatshop-labour/ Agree about other brands like Walmart, Forever 21, etc though

  • The Compassionator

    The problem is America. Allowing companies to outsource so they can drive down the cost of manufacturing in order to increase their profit margin. The truth is these companies don’t care about employee safety or their quality of life. In order to set up manufacturing in the US they would have to abide by strict guidelines by OSHA, and the labor board not to mention offer insurance, workers comp, unemployment comp, SS, disability claim, etc. They would rather have the money in their own pocket. They are constantly making claims that “If we made this in the US the customer couldn’t afford it, which is not the case. The real answer is they don’t want it cutting into their profit margin. You are talking about popular brands that all have a net worth of over a billion dollars!!! They can afford to bring the work back into this country and show some respect to those people who are actually the ones making them rich. And believe it or not cost isn’t always associated with “better” quality. Many top name brands (including designer labels) are made the same as generic brands and just have a different name on the label. Sadly most all of them use sweatshops labor because they can get away with it. Before the birth of brand specific outlet stores stored started popping up everywhere, you were able to get high priced items at a huge discount. However now when you walk into a designer outlet store, the product you are buying isn’t the real thing, it’s a cheaper version. Again the greedy and greedier!!

    • Nicole

      America is part of the problem. Other countries are involved though. Uniqlo is a japanese company, Primark is an irish company, H&M is swedish, Aldo is canadian, ADIDAS is german, and Zara is spanish. That’s just a few that I searched after reading this blog post.The problem is people as a whole, not just one particular country. Not to mention the countries that are allowing these conditions to happen. I understand there is a power differential between america and, let’s say, south asia (Bangladesh is what comes to mind with regard to sweatshops) but using america as a scapegoat won’t change the horrible conditions. It’s a global issue because everyone everywhere plays a role.

    • Milena Daniels

      Ummm, i agree some what. but the companies take care of there people, but they find loop holes in buying equipment from another country that bought from the child labor manufacturing. but in all yes it is bad but get your facts streight please.

  • Linda West

    I’d buy the American Apparel miniskirt because quality is more important than cost.

  • Glamzee

    I hate sweatshop labor but boycotting or banning sweatshops would eliminate jobs and just worsen an already bad situation for the people who make their living in it.

    • Leen Twee Drie

      No, it wouldn’t eliminate jobs if all country’s stopped the use of sweatshops. They have to make the clothes somewhere and they still need some people to do this. It would actually do the economy in every country well if people where being paid a fair pay for their work. There would be no big company’s leaving the country to get there stuff where it’s cheaper to hire staff. People would have more income to buy their stuff (everywhere) and they would actually sell more 🙂

  • Moni

    I’m really glad ethics is seeping into discussions of fashion. I have always found it wrong that a medium of expression that brings people joy harms those who make it. This is why it’s important to ask who made our clothes and how were they made.