Clothing brands like Shein, Boohoo, and Princess Polly have taken the world by storm over the past few years. With online shopping triumphing over brick-and-mortar stores, these international fast fashion brands have emerged as some of the most popular clothing companies.
Alongside Shein, Princess Polly has reached the top of the market for Gen Z consumers, largely due to TikTok and YouTube try-on hauls. Princess Polly is ranked as the 5th most popular online shopping site for young consumers. Celebrity endorsements from Ariana Grande and influencers like Emma Chamberlain helped catapult Princess Polly—which is much more expensive than other fast fashion retailers—to the top of the market.
Shein has received a lot of criticism in recent years because of its unsustainable business model. The brand produces large amounts of clothing at very low prices (most below $15), raising questions about how it sources and produces its materials. But is Princess Polly any better?
Princess Polly is considerably more expensive than Shein. Earlier this year, a pair of Princess Polly jeans went viral on TikTok—but they cost $74, which is closer to high-end retail prices than fast fashion prices. Those higher prices suggest they may be ethically sourced and use higher quality materials. But the company is still considered an “ultra fast-fashion brand,” launching new collections regularly. In the United States, it made $58.2 million in sales in 2020 alone.
Here’s everything you should know before shopping, including Princess Polly’s labor practices, sustainability initiatives, and animal policy.
Is Princess Polly Sustainable and Ethical?
Princess Polly touts an impressive and comprehensive sustainability and ethics page on its site. The retailer joined the United Nations Global Compact this year and aligned its company goals with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Under these goals, the brand is committed to “assess and continuously improve our worker welfare by maintaining a robust and ethical souring program.” What does that mean? It requires all of its product suppliers and factories to register for the Supplier Ethical Exchange Index, which works with suppliers to improve worker conditions. This index looks for an array of labor malpractices, including: forced labor, child labor, health and safety concerns, unfair wages, long working hours, and worker maltreatment.
While this sounds like an impressive human rights policy, factories and suppliers use this index to complete a self-assessment and an independent audit, meaning there are no third parties regulating labor practices. Suppliers are expected to self-regulate. The Supplier Ethical Exchange Index has received criticism for its independent audit approach because changes may not actually be implemented.
Though it’s impossible to know the extent of the labor issues, 83% of Princess Polly’s factories are currently working to improve their labor practices under remediation plans, meaning they didn’t pass inspection.
Princess Polly also claims to have a 100% visible supply chain but admits to an opaque Tier 2, 3, 4, and 5 supply chains, which means the brand only knows the supplier conditions at one phase of production. More specifically, Princess Polly doesn’t know whether its ethical standards are upheld at factories that print graphics, process raw materials, and extract raw materials.
The brand plans to achieve full visibility of Tier 2 suppliers (which includes printing, dyeing, etc.) by 2023, but it hasn’t made any commitments to gain visibility of Tier 3, 4, or 5 supply chains (which is the majority of the production process). So Princess Polly’s claim to have an ethical supply chain is misleading.
Alongside Princess Polly’s claims to ethical supply chains, it states it uses “sustainable materials” and that sustainability is at the forefront of the company mission. Does this claim hold up?
Princess Polly uses six materials in all of its products (polyester, cotton, viscose, metals, nylon, and acrylic), almost all of which are synthetic. In March 2021, the retailer launched a lower-impact collection made from organically grown cotton and recycled polyurethane. It has pledged to continue expanding its use of lower-impact materials. It has also pledged to use lower-impact materials in 20% of its products by 2022, 60% by 2025, and 100% before 2030.
However, despite Princess Polly saying it will release material guidelines “with more detail on exactly which materials we define as more sustainable, how we will track this target, and our progress to date,” the brand has yet to do so. It has similarly pledged to lower carbon emissions to net zero but provides no specific information about its current emissions other than using carbon offsets (which is a way of “paying” for carbon emissions by donating to carbon reduction initiatives).
Princess Polly has committed to making all of its global offices and warehouses carbon neutral by 2023 and reach net zero emissions from the entire supply chain before 2030. Still, the brand hasn’t released any specific actions it will take to reach those goals. Considering it doesn’t have any visible or controlled supply chains, it’s important to take this pledge with a grain of salt. If the brand does reach this goal, it will only be for Tier 1 and 2 supply chains.
What about the sustainability of its actual products? Again, most of Princess Polly’s products are made from synthetic materials, which are not easily recyclable or biodegradable. But the brand says it’s currently working on a collection program for its clothing to make recycling easier.
Princess Polly recently partnered with The Better Packaging Co. to create 100% compostable packaging, including compostable labels and stickers. It launched a collection of biodegradable packaging in January 2021, and is currently working to replace all of its packaging with these materials.
Despite its misleading claims to ethical and sustainable practices, Princess Polly does have an admirable animal policy. Princess Polly, unlike many fast fashion brands, is almost completely vegan. Currently, less than 1% of its products are derived from animal products, and by 2023, all its products will be vegan.
Princess Polly recently launched a Vegan Edit, where all the products are PETA-approved. It’s also a fur-free business and works with several animal welfare organizations, including Four Paws and the Farm Animal Welfare Council.
So where does this information leave us on Princess Polly? Is it a sustainable alternative to Shein? That answer is complicated. Its claims to ethical supply chains and sustainable materials are misleading—only one of its five supply chain tiers is visible and regulated, and only a fraction of its materials are made from sustainable fabrics.
Princess Polly is also very opaque about its current carbon emissions. It has very lofty goals but has unfortunately released nothing about where the brand is starting from.
Princess Polly seems to be more transparent and sustainable than Shein. The brand has impressive sustainability goals that, if reached, would better the planet. Still, we can’t call Princess Polly sustainable or ethical. Even with some changes, it’s hard for any fast fashion retailer to be sustainable when production rates are so high.
Sustainable Alternatives to Princess Polly
All in all, our hope is that Princess Polly will achieve more ethical and sustainable practices across all supply chains. The good news is you don’t need to shop fast fashion in order to find trendy apparel. There are many other ways to shop that are better for people and the planet.
1. Buy or Borrow Secondhand
Other than wearing what you already own, buying secondhand is the most sustainable way to shop. From vintage boutiques to local and online thrift stores, there are plenty of options for every budget, body, and style. If you really want to maximize pre-existing wardrobes, you could also consider borrowing clothes from friends and family.
2. Buy Less
We get it—fast fashion is popular because of how affordable it is. If other clothing options are out-of-reach due to the prices, simply buying less will make your closet more sustainable. Fast fashion’s unsustainable nature depends on excessive consumerism. By purchasing only what you need from more sustainable brands (rather than regularly hauling 20-plus pieces), you’ll support a slower system.
3. Shop Small and/or Local
Supporting a small business rather than a large corporation goes a long way in terms of sustainability. Smaller businesses consume less in part because they are physically smaller, but slower economies are also inherently more sustainable. If shopping local isn’t available, consider supporting sustainable, online businesses. Even if the store isn’t local, small businesses still consume fewer resources.
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