The Most Popular Fast Fashion Brands, Ranked for Conscious Consumers

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"Fast fashion has a detrimental effect on the environment. We looked into eight of the most popular brands to see which are taking steps toward a brighter future, and which have mastered the art of well-curated greenwashing."

Fast fashion is everywhere—from the daily deal dump in our spam folders to the targeted ads on our social media feeds. The speed and reach of today’s clothing trends increasingly demand that we turn over our attention (and dollars) to keep up.

You’ve heard of fast fashion’s major players. Brands like Shein, H&M, and Forever 21 have digital and in-person shoppers hooked. On average, people bought 60% more clothes in 2014 than they did in 2000, and that figure is steadily increasing. Unfortunately, people kept that clothing for half as long.

Consumers are also spending more on their wardrobe in the post-pandemic world: Clothing retailers saw sales rise by 18.3% earlier this year.

The Problem with Fast Fashion

fast fashion brands sustainability

As expected, all that extra clothing isn’t doing the planet any favors. Fast fashion has a major impact on the environment: It’s responsible for about one-third of all microplastics found in the ocean and is producing 20% of global water waste. In addition, 85% of all textiles wind up in landfills every year. To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of one garbage truck loaded with clothes being dumped in a landfill every second.

But even though the truth about fast fashion is being brought to light, sparking important conversations on social media, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s one of the most accessible and affordable ways to buy clothing. And we fully understand that most consumers are more apt to spend $10 on a fast fashion tee than $60 on a sustainable option made from organic cotton.

That’s what these rankings are for. No fast fashion brand is truly eco-friendly, but we’re here to provide conscious consumers with the information they need to shop as responsibly and sustainably as possible. That way, if you decide to consume fast fashion, you’ll know which brands are taking steps in the right direction—and which have mastered the art of well-curated greenwashing.

Our Conscious Consumer Methodology

fast fashion brands sustainability

The Brightly team compared eight popular fast fashion brands to see how they ranked from a consumer perspective. That includes researching everything from a brand’s production rate (how often do they release new pieces?) to its sustainability initiatives (and if any progress has been made on these goals).

Brands We Ranked:

  • Shein
  • Forever 21
  • Missguided
  • Zara
  • Boohoo
  • Fashion Nova
  • UNIQLO
  • H&M

We scored the brands out of 25 points based on their production rate, efforts to reduce waste, use of sustainable fabrics, ethical labor practices, and commitments to a sustainable future. Each category is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the least eco-friendly and 5 being the most eco-friendly.

1. UNIQLO

fast fashion brands sustainability

Total Score: 15/25

  • Production Rate: 2/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 4/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 4/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 2/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5

Though it operates on the traditional fast fashion model, UNIQLO’s brand focuses on timeless basics that can outlast passing trends. The brand is relatively older, and it is actually one of the most committed to meeting its sustainability goals.

Unlike most of the other brands in this ranking, UNIQLO is intercepting its supply chain at multiple levels to reduce its overall waste. As of September 2019, the company has switched to FSC approved eco-friendly shopping bags in an effort to reduce single-use plastics in its supply chain. Despite this, the brand will only “consider” eliminating the use of single-use plastic in products like hangers and packing materials.

UNIQLO also uses customers’ used down products to repurpose and encourages them to bring unwanted UNIQLO clothing to its stores for recycling and donation. The brand has even developed BlueCycle, a new technology for making jeans. Because producing jeans “exerts a considerable burden on the environment and workers,” UNIQLO says BlueCycle will decrease the amount of manual labor and water used to make jeans. The new laser distressing system replaces sandpaper fading to reduce water consumption by 99%.

In an effort to use sustainable fabrics, UNIQLO uses textiles made from recycled materials. The company sells a bag made from recycled nylon chips and a line of products made from recycled PET bottles. In 2019, UNIQLO announced its support of the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) which ensures ethically sourced, sustainable down and feathers are used in its products to minimize the negative impacts on wildfowl.

UNIQLO has also made strides toward more ethical labor in 2019. It reported notable improvements like employing more workers with disabilities and increasing the percentage of women in management positions. The brand even partnered with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women to support the women working at UNIQLO.

However, in 2015, the brand was responsible for withholding $5.5 million in severance pay from its workers after abruptly closing down two of its facilities in Indonesia. A 2016 investigation of UNIQLO factories in China revealed human rights violations such as repeated unpaid overtime and hazardous work environments. Poor ventilation, high temperatures, and lack of appropriate gear were among the reported infringements.

The UNIQLO sustainability page is arguably one of the most robust in this list, but it remains unspecific about its metrics and current progress in meeting its many goals. While the retailer received a Fashion Transparency Index of 31-40% in 2020, the company could still make clearer strides toward a more sustainable future.

2. H&M

Total Score: 11/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 3/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 3/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5

H&M is another household name in fast fashion whose popularity is almost as big as its production rate. It’s the second-largest retailer in the world (second only to Zara), which is fitting—the brand currently sells roughly three billion garments a year. This is likely why H&M is credited with creating the fast fashion industry.

Though it is responsible for a large portion of fashion’s waste, H&M has made efforts to tackle the industry’s environmental issues. H&M reports 65% of its materials are recycled, organic, or sustainably sourced, and the company has even implemented a recycling program within its stores.

According to the H&M Foundation, the brand is working to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, H&M hopes to use only recycled and sustainably sourced materials, and its Re-Made collection currently upcycles old clothes to create new designs. In addition, the company now allows customers to buy secondhand pieces and sell old clothing and accessories online using H&M Rewear.

H&M also launched its Conscious collection in 2011. In order for an item to be included in the collection, it “must contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.” The one exception is recycled cotton, which the company says “can only make up 20% of a product due to quality restraints.”

Despite prioritizing sustainability, H&M has yet to make a concerted move toward ethical labor. The brand promised its workers better wages by 2018, but research found workers in India and Turkey earned about a third of the estimated livable wage. In Cambodia, workers were earning less than one-half of the livable wage. Not only did the company not meet its commitment, but workers also cited fatigue, fainting, and wage-driven overtime within their facilities.

Campaigns like “Turn Around, H&M!” have petitioned for living wages and humane working conditions for workers. While H&M has made more commitments to improve working conditions and wages, there is little evidence to show improvements in ethical labor at H&M in recent years.

The H&M Group’s commitments to a sustainable future are largely overseen by the H&M Foundation, a non-profit backed by $180 million gifted by the Persson family, who founded the chain. The foundation collaborated with scientists to create H&M’s $100 million Green Machine. The machine uses hydrothermal technology to break cloth into fibers, and utilizes a closed loop system that doesn’t contribute to water waste.

Although H&M offers eco-friendly and forward-facing proposals, the brand will need to implement more solutions to offset its incredibly large impact on the environment and its workers.

3. Boohoo

fast fashion brands sustainability

Total Score: 10/25

  • Production Rate: 2/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 2/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5

Deemed by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to be one of the least sustainable fashion brands in the UK, Boohoo’s commitments to a sustainable future are scarce. The brand has been labeled alongside Fashion Nova as an emerging “ultra-fast-fashion” brand by the New York Times. Plus, the Boohoo Group is expansive: It owns other fast fashion brands, including Nasty Gal, PrettyLittleThing, and MissPap.

Boohoo uploads 116 pieces to their site daily, or 772 pieces weekly—not the highest rate on our list, but exorbitant. The exact outputs are monitored by its Supply Chain Compliance Committee, created in 2020. Unfortunately, this in-house group reports to the company’s board and Risk Committee, which are not public entities.

While the company acknowledges the “environmental and social cost” of its supply chain, little qualitative data can be found on how Boohoo has reduced its waste. According to Boohoo’s sustainability plan, the company promises to work with its suppliers to ensure textile waste does not go directly to landfills by 2025. To do this, the brand will encourage using re-sale platforms, making donations, and upcycling old materials. However, there is little evidence to show where changes have already been made.

The Boohoo Group is also part of WRAP’s Textile 2030, an initiative that brings fashion brands together to transform the industry. While Boohoo is part of the initiative, the brand hasn’t reported the specifics of its commitments. Instead, it mentions it will develop specific goals by 2023.

The company does have a sustainability plan called UP.FRONT, which states Boohoo will be transparent about the progress it makes. Boohoo’s goals are threefold: The brand hopes to only use sustainably sourced cotton and polyester by 2025, to be open about relationships with suppliers, and to achieve a “52% reduction in emissions” by 2030. Currently, the brand claims its dispatch bags already contain 80% recycled plastic.

Like many other fast fashion brands, Boohoo has faced claims of unethical labor practices. Boohoo’s factories are primarily located in Leicester, England, and workers there have reported low wages and poor working conditions. Employees at the Leicester facility earn about £3.50 ($4.40) an hour, which is below the £8.72 ($10.93) minimum wage in the UK. The Boohoo Group hasn’t offered evidence of providing livable wages for its workers since.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, staff members were not given PPE or other hygienic protections, according to a report from Labour Behind The Label, a workers’ rights group. The report found that “Leicester factories continued operating throughout the lockdown,” and when employees tested positive for COVID-19, they were required to continue working.

Additionally, Labour Behind The Label found that it is “impossible to produce the units/garments requested by Boohoo” while only paying workers the national minimum wage. Boohoo’s model relies inherently on cheap labor—a move toward ethical practice would require a complete change in the current system.

While Boohoo has implemented a number of sustainability goals, the company states “[its] next chapter is still in the making.” The brand is still working to build a team that is responsible for protecting workers. It also mentions the retailer is going to provide easy access to sustainable choices. Customers should keep an eye out for Boohoo’s READY FOR THE FUTURE line, which contains clothes made of “better materials.”

4. Zara

Total Score: 9/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 3/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 2/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 2/5

Zara is comparatively very transparent about its supply chain. It currently manufactures over 450 million items per year and 500 new designs each week. This fast turnover is the reason why it’s recognized as one of the largest retailers in fast fashion. Unfortunately, that title also means the company contributes heavily to the global hyper-consumption of garments, hence the low score for its production rate.

As part of its Green to Pack program, overseen by its parent company, Inditex, Zara will reconfigure its packaging and labeling systems to eliminate single-use plastic products by 2023. In 2016, the Green to Pack program reused 101.8 million hangers and 1 billion security tabs. It’s also committing to 100% zero waste in its supply chain by 2023.

Further, Zara has notably announced that by 2025, it intends to only use cotton, linen, and polyester that is “organic, sustainable, and recycled.” While this sets an eco-conscious intention for the brand, it doesn’t offset the cost of creating fabrics at the rate and scale at which Zara currently outputs them. It also doesn’t address the inherent disposability of products that contribute to an abundance of textile waste.

There have also been repeated allegations filed against the brand for inhumane labor practices in numerous countries including Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Myanmar. Myanmar’s supply chain has been under particular scrutiny, with workers describing 11-hour shifts and unlivable wages.

Factory workers at a Zara supplier reportedly worked in sweatshop conditions, though Inditex denied responsibility. The parent company has emphasized its compliance to labor codes of conduct. However, this claim is difficult to vet, as the brand currently only discloses the wages of its retail workers, not factory employees.

To commit to a more sustainable future, Zara has developed a series of five-year strategic environmental plans, detailing milestones it plans to achieve over the next 20 years. While the brand is promising a switch to 100% renewable electrical energy in its central offices, logistics centers, and stores, it doesn’t mention its factories in the plan. Its ultimate, somewhat ambitious, goal is to “reduce and offset all emissions” by 2040.

Overall, Zara does offer more quantitative data than other fast fashion brands, but it’s not transparent enough about its progress in meeting its sustainable and ethical goals.

5. Forever 21

fast fashion brands sustainability

Total Score: 8/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 2/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 2/5

Forever 21 is an (ironically) older name in fast fashion, but not a wiser one. The brand offers little reporting on its production rate, but in 2017, the Los Angeles Times found one worker could produce up to 700 shirts a day.

The company’s social responsibility page is also sparse. It features few initiatives beyond its BYOB Program, which donates $0.05 to the American Forests Association for every customer who brings their own bag. Customers can also purchase an American Forests t-shirt, which will donate $1 to “help conserve and restore healthy forests.”

The social responsibility page also boasts 100% recyclable and reusable plastic and paper bags are used in “many” of its stores, but it doesn’t cite how many. Forever 21 also says its shipment boxes are recycled daily at stores and distribution centers. The brand claims it is currently developing eco-friendly garment collections, but again, it doesn’t provide details.

Forever 21 is unfortunately unresponsive to claims of unethical labor conditions. Despite promising to “ensure that their employees work in safe and healthy environments,” the U.S. Department of Labor found labor violations at 85% of the Los Angeles facilities investigated, some of which produce Forever 21 clothing.

In 2016, the brand paid its workers an average of $7 and as little as $4 an hour at its garment factories in LA. While Forever 21 has been under investigation for its labor practices, the brand only selectively changed and kept manufacturers, regardless of violations.

Forever 21 also received the lowest score, a 0-5%, in the 2019 Fashion Transparency Index. In 2020, the company moved up to a score of 6-10%, which shows little improvement.

Unfortunately, the low transparency ratings and the lack of information on the brand’s social responsibility page makes it difficult to assess Forever 21’s commitments to a sustainable future.

6. Missguided

fast fashion brands sustainability

Total Score: 7/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 2/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 1/5

Missguided takes pride in offering shoppers “rapid fashion” and joins Boohoo as one of EAC’s least sustainable fashion brands in the UK. It is one of the few companies that strangely embraces fast fashion in its branding by claiming its mission is to empower women. The retailer releases about 1,000 new products each week and aims to offer customers affordable fashion for all body types.

Nitin Passi, founder and CEO of Missguided, wrote a letter that states the brand does not have a “Corporate Social Responsibility” page. Instead, there is “no such thing as ‘corporate'” at Missguided. Passi announces in his letter that the company’s mission is to empower women to dream big. He says “dreaming big” is how the brand is able to bring new ideas to the table.

Additionally, Passi mentions the brand is working to create a “closed loop recycling process” for its stores. The letter also discusses the possibility of “partnering with others” to find ways for customers to recycle their used Missguided purchases. However, the letter does not go into detail about what those processes look like.

Missguided does offer a division called RE_STYLD, which sells clothes made from recycled fibers. The collection includes “key staples” like denim shorts, loungewear, and t-shirts. In an article from Babezine, Missguided’s blog, buyers are told they’d be “doing mother nature a solid” by buying sustainable fabrics. The brand also encourages customers to buy secondhand clothes or mend old ones to avoid waste. Beyond promoting RE_STYLD, however, the brand does not provide any data on its current sustainable material output.

While the company claims to empower women, it displays a significant gender pay gap. In 2018, the median hourly pay for women was 45% lower than that of their male counterparts. In a statement from the company, Missguided says it has more women than men working in lower-paid roles and fewer women working in higher-paid ones, which accounts for the wage gap. However, the brand claims to be committed to closing the gap.

The brand also confirms it is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and promises to denounce unethical working conditions. However, there is little evidence to confirm the brand offers its workers livable wages or ethical labor protections.

Missguided doesn’t have a sustainability page—something other retailers have rushed to implement—and is vague about its sustainability commitments.

7. Shein

Total Score: 6/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 1/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 1/5

Shein was one of the first fast fashion brands to use TikTok to market its products, and it is widely popular among Gen Z shoppers. The company’s goal is to ensure everyone can enjoy fashion at affordable prices. In a 2020 press release, the brand announced it adds about 500 products to its website daily. However, there is little information about its supply chain.

According to Shein’s “Our Products/Our Planet” campaign, the online retailer claims to produce only 50-100 pieces per new product to reduce waste. However, when products are in demand, the brand implements large-scale production. There’s a discrepancy between the brand’s apparent outputs and its reported figures, which suggests Shein engages in large-scale production more frequently than it estimates.

To reduce waste and conserve energy, Shein says its warehouses are “kinder to the environment,” as water and electricity automatically turn off when not in use. Shein’s warehouses also use solar-powered vehicles, and the company has implemented a recycling program that allows customers to trade in their old clothes for Shein gift cards. The company says those clothes get donated or refurbished.

As for its use of sustainable fabrics, Shein says it “does its best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester.” But of the 70,372 women’s tops currently for sale on its website, only 124 claim to be made from recycled polyester. This implies sourcing sustainable fabrics is yet to be a true commitment for the brand.

Even though allegations of Shein’s unethical labor practices have circulated on TikTok and Instagram, the brand assures its customers it provides a “fair and happy work environment for all.” While it is difficult to gauge how ethical Shein’s labor practices are, the brand states it believes workers deserve a livable wage and other benefits like health insurance.

In addition, many small designers, primarily BIPOC, have insisted that Shein copies designs from smaller businesses. According to NPR, a designer at Elexiay, a Black-owned business, says Shein copied one of her designs. The original sweater cost $330, but Shein’s version cost only $17. The sweater was later removed from Shein’s website. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the only allegation against Shein for copying designs, which is why the brand’s true value of individual labor is in question.

At this point, it doesn’t seem as though Shein has made many concrete commitments to a sustainable future. The retailer has been vague about its environmental impact, offered up little about ensuring equitable labor practices, and has done little to enforce change.

8. Fashion Nova

fast fashion brands sustainability

Total Score: 5/25

  • Production Rate: 1/5
  • Efforts to Reduce Waste: 1/5
  • Use of Sustainable Fabrics: 1/5
  • Ethical Labor Practices: 1/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 1/5

Fashion Nova is one of the most popular brands among celebrities and influencers like Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. And with over 20 million followers on Instagram, the company’s popularity continues to rise. Despite being active on social media, Fashion Nova is relatively silent about its production and sustainability aims.

Like Missguided, the brand reports adding about 1,000 new arrivals to its website every week, or 143 daily. It also boasts about how quickly the company is able to predict fashion trends and send them out to customers. The company’s Instagram biography tells shoppers it offers fast worldwide shipping, making its products widely available across the globe.

Unfortunately, the brand does not go into detail about its production rate, efforts to reduce waste, or plans to use sustainable fabrics. Fashion Nova has earned the lowest score on the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index for withholding this information.

Like Forever 21, Fashion Nova’s Los Angeles-based facilities have operated unethically. In 2019, the New York Times reported many Fashion Nova factory workers were being paid “illegally low wages” and working in poor conditions. The brand’s commitments to ethical labor practices or regulatory unions appear to be nonexistent. The company also hasn’t revealed the percentage of clothing manufactured in the U.S.

Fashion Nova’s lack of sustainability goals and transparency puts the brand at the bottom of our list.

The Top Takeaway for Conscious Consumers

The TL;DR? By nature of the fast fashion model, none of the brands above can claim to be eco-friendly. The high-speed production rates and massive amounts of waste from the industry make it impossible.

Worldwide clothing consumption is predicted to rise by 63% by 2030, so there’s no better time than now to rethink our habits and work on being more conscious consumers. Shoppers like fast fashion because it’s affordable and accessible—but those items are low-quality and don’t last long, resulting in more waste in landfills.

If you need to consume fast fashion, opt for brands working on becoming more eco-friendly. Otherwise, consider investing in a smaller amount of high-quality items from sustainable fashion brands. Or, thrift your favorite non-eco brands instead of buying new.

Fast fashion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But if we vote with our dollars and opt for more sustainable options, fast fashion brands will eventually have to rethink their current business practices in favor of a system that supports people and the planet.


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Fast fashion has a detrimental effect on the environment. We looked into eight of the most popular brands to see which are taking steps toward a brighter future, and which have mastered the art of well-curated greenwashing.

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