“Please tell me you did not think sweatshops are where they make sweatpants,” says Peg, the assistant to actress Kate Hudson’s character Birdie in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. In the scene from Netflix’s new film, Peg has just discovered that Birdie’s loungewear brand, Sweetie Pants, has been working with a notorious Bangladeshi sweatshop. What appears to be a plot twist for Birdie is actually a case of art imitating life. Fabletics, co-founded by Hudson in 2013, has also been caught engaging in unethical practices, receiving just two points out of a possible 150 on Remake’s accountability scoresheet.
Activewear is notorious for relying heavily on fossil fuel-derived fabrics like polyester, elastane and spandex.
Fabletics is an activewear brand that sells low-price, trend-focused lifestyle and fitness clothing. It’s owned by TechStyle Fashion Group, which also owns Savage x Fenty and Justfab among others. The brand has expanded rapidly in recent years — 33 new stores opened in the U.S. in 2022 alone — bringing in an estimated $650 million a year. Hudson, one of the company’s four founders, transitioned into an advisory role in 2022.
A Scandal Swept Under The Rug?
In 2021, a Time Magazine report revealed rampant sexual abuse in a factory that made Fabletics products. 38 workers accused Hippo Knitting, a Taiwanese-owned, Lesotho-operated factory, of enabling abuse, humiliation and harassment that carried on for years. Lesotho is a small country in Southern Africa where garment manufacturing is one of the largest employers — hiring 13% of the population. The industry is also infamous for widespread abusive practices, particularly sexual violence, against vulnerable garment workers in a country with high rates of unemployment and poverty.
Following the scandal, Fabletics paused operations with Hippo Knitting, however, three months later the brand restarted its contract and is once again one of the factory’s biggest clients. During this three-month break period, Fabletics launched an investigation into the factory, then announced a plan to combat gender-based violence and released an updated Ethical Sourcing Code that details how the company plans to eliminate harmful and dangerous working conditions by introducing grievance procedures for workplace violations, an anti-intimidation policy as well as quarterly social compliance audits by third-party organizations.
A spokesperson from Fabletics told Remake that the company partnered with a human rights organization called Africa Rising, as well as the Lesotho government and local unions to introduce binding commitments around worker rights. Fabletics says it works with Re Mmoho Compliance Solutions, a Lesotho-based non-profit organization, to implement this corrective action plan.
The VIP program is designed to incentivize the constant buying of new products
Aside from Hippo Knitting, there isn’t much information regarding the location of Fabletics’ other manufacturing hubs as the company is not transparent about its supply chain. An FAQ section on its website states that materials are sourced all over the world and most of the factories are located in Asia. Transparency is crucial because it holds brands accountable for their commitments and allows environmental and social violations to be found and fixed. Without it, brands remain in the dark about exactly who is making their clothes and under what conditions.
Fabletics, Show Us What You’re Made Of
When it comes to materials, activewear is notorious for relying heavily on fossil fuel-derived fabrics like polyester, elastane and spandex. Fabletics is no exception. While the company says 50% of its core fabrics are made from sustainable or partially recycled materials, there is no information on what this actually means. What Fabletics considers “sustainable” or “partially recycled” and where these materials are sourced from remains a mystery. On the Fabletics website, some products are labelled with the material breakdown while others simply say “Imported.” There is no mention of any certifications to confirm the sustainability credentials of these materials.
Diving deeper, Fabletics provides no evidence of measuring the emissions in its supply chain. The brand is certified carbon neutral in accordance with the CarbonNeutral Protocol, which is achieved through offsetting. Recently, carbon offsetting programs used by many of the world’s biggest businesses were revealed to be largely worthless and actually causing more harm than good. Fabletics provides zero information on how the company is reducing its emissions, progress so far, or goals for the future. The same can be said for the brand’s water and chemical use and pollution.
Overproduction and Consumption
When it comes to circular economy initiatives, the Fabletics website says that in 2021, it “donated over 5,000 pounds of excess fabric to be recycled into building materials.” It’s likely that this fabric was processed to become insulation. What this indicates, rather than just a philanthropic good deed, is the brand’s problem with overproduction. Downcycling clothing or materials made from virgin materials into lower-grade fibers for construction isn’t an effective solution to creating too many products or buying too much fabric. Fabletics provides no information on plans to reduce textile waste in its supply chains.
Overproduction goes hand in hand with overconsumption, something that Fabletics encourages through its VIP program. The $60/month membership includes 20-50% off all products, exclusive access to sales and member-only designs. With more than two million members, the VIP program is designed to incentivize the constant buying of new products to justify the monthly fee. According to co-CEO Adam Goldenberg, VIP members shop with Fabletics three or four times more often than regular non-VIP customers.
Further encouraging overconsumption, Fabletics has a partnership with ThredUp where customers can earn shopping credit for sending unwanted goods to the resale platform. Rather than encouraging customers to buy Fabletics secondhand through ThredUp, they are pushed into a cycle of consumption and subsequent disposal of lightly worn clothing. At the time of writing, there are around 2,000 Fabletics branded products available to purchase through ThredUp. No information can be found in ThredUp’s annual report about the impact of this partnership or the sell-through rates of Fabletics second-hand activewear. While the resale market and demand for secondhand clothing is certainly rising, it remains to be seen if there is as much appetite for secondhand activewear.
Fabletics worked quickly to rectify the problems within its supply chain in one factory, but there is much more work to do before this activewear empire can call itself sustainable or ethical. Across all fronts, Fabletics requires a dramatic environmental, social and governance, or “ESG,” overhaul. At the core of the issues is a dire need for traceability of its supply chains and transparency with its clearly loyal customer base. Without this, the brand will continue to be involved in scandalous human rights abuse cases like that of the Hippo Knitting scandal.
On top of this, it would be encouraging to see the brand shift away from a business model that encourages rapid overconsumption of its products, which could in turn reduce overproduction and waste. Perhaps then, Fabletics can introduce circular economic initiatives to encourage customers to keep, repair and love their garments longer. The brand has some charitable partnerships and community projects, like donating clothing to families in need through Good360. However, this scratches the surface of the positive impact that Fabletics could have on the people in its supply chain and the environment if it committed to more ambitious sustainability and ethical policies.