I remember walking into the Brandy Melville flagship store in Westwood, Los Angeles, for the first time as a 20-something. My friend was attending UCLA at the time and was ecstatic to show me the new shopping spot that all the cool college kids were talking about. Like many other devoted fans past and present, I immediately swooned over the white brick walls and the carefree California-inspired aesthetic.

 



 

 

Behind the façade of dreamy tees and beach vibes is a different reality. In recent years, reports of misconduct from the founders including sexism, racism, and misogyny, began to surface on the internet. In the new HBO documentary, Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion, former employees, and insiders share their stories about the toxic culture running rampant within the company, from alleged discriminatory hiring practices to sexual exploitation. In the film, an ex-employee describes how people of colour were sent to work in the backroom’s merchandising department, instead of up front where most of the white employees were working in sales and customer service. In 2020, the company was sued for shutting down a Canadian store that claimed it was terminated due to its catering to African Americans and did not fit with the brand’s image, deeming the store “ghetto”. The lawsuit resulted in a $1.5 million settlement.

It is alarming that a brand that primarily targets teenage girls has been revealed to be exploiting women from consumers and store staff to garment workers within its supply chain. Brandy Melville successfully cultivated a cult following through word-of-mouth and what seemed like authentic social media presence – which was curated by two white men. Even the “made in Italy” labels, which are thought to be higher quality, are deceptive. In the documentary, director Eva Orner shifts the focus to Prato, Italy, where Brandy Melville sources from, and finds that the factories operate in sweatshop conditions using immigrant labour. 

This problematic cycle is mirrored by other major brands, including the fast-fashion pioneer, Zara, and the new ultra-fast fashion competitor, Shein. They have gained popularity among young consumers by offering trendy clothes at an affordable price and collaborating with influencers. By creating more demand, the brand churns out more clothes which eventually get discarded and shipped off to the Global South – all to add more profit into the pockets of CEOs.

Brandy Melville, Zara and Shein are examples of how fashion corporations are taking advantage of women, especially those who are most vulnerable, by producing clothes at a rate that is unsustainable for our environment.

 

 Fast Fashion is a Feminist Issue

Fast fashion is a feminist issue that intersects with both beauty standards and labour rights, further perpetuating gender inequalities. Most fashion CEOs are white men, and only 12.5% of apparel and retail apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 are led by women. The industry relies heavily on women for their labour, hiring them as retail employees and garment workers, and as consumers. 

Through social media and exclusively single sizing, Brandy Melville created an unattainable image of beauty – thin, white, and often blonde – which is detrimental for women of colour who do not fit into that mould. According to a 2020 study conducted by East Carolina University, this unachievable beauty ideal and the lack of diversity prey on women’s insecurities and impact their self-esteem.

zara

This toxic culture of exploitation continues down the chain. Major companies like Zara, Shein and Brandy Melville all have a history of outsourcing  garment production to other countries with cheap labour. Heaps of clothes are made by women in garment factories in places, like Bangladesh and China, which lack robust laws to protect workers. These individuals face harsh conditions, including long hours, low wages and unsafe environments. . According to the undercover investigation in the 2023 documentary, Inside the Shein Machine, Iman Amrani revealed the harsh working conditions at two Shein suppliers, from docking pay for mistakes to withholding pay. In the race to deliver the latest trends quickly and inexpensively, suppliers must operate on thin margins and tight timelines, which puts pressure on workers and encourages unethical labour practices.

Nearly 60% of garment workers globally are women

 According to the International Labour Organization, nearly 60% of garment workers globally are women, and nearly 80% in Mongolia and Myanmar. Not only do women receive lower pay than men, but they also experience workplace violence and harassment. Women are the backbone of the industry, as consumers, employees, and garment workers. Instead of supporting this vital workforce, corporations thrive on capitalizing on female insecurities and vulnerabilities, all at the expense of their wellbeing.

 Root of All Problems: Overproduction

Zara, which is part of the Inditex Umbrella, is known for its ability to replicate high fashion designs affordably and distribute a garment to market in as short as fifteen days. As fashion has shifted to more immediate production timelines, fast fashion innovated the microseasons, further,shortening the fashion cycle. As if this isn’t fast enough, Shein has adopted an ultra fashion model, dropping 700-1,000 new styles a day, according to CEO Molly Miao in 2020. As of today, the industry is producing more than we need, at a rapid speed that we can’t keep up with nor use.

More clothes mean more waste. People are now wearing clothes less times than previously before discarding or donating them. Consumers throw away shoes and clothing [versus recycle], at an average of 70 pounds per person annually. But the waste doesn’t just come from individuals, it is also the result of excess orders by brands who are more concerned about keeping their retail shelves stocked and their prices low than the wellbeing of garment workers or the planet. It is also easier and cheaper for brands to overorder. Without proper waste management and regulations, the excess goods, still in pristine condition, go straight to the trash.

Most of these unwanted garments are shipped off to countries in the Global South, like Chile and Ghana, for resale and reuse. While some get a second life by being upcycled into high fashion in Ghana, where an estimated 60% end up in the local landfills, posing a threat to the natural ecosystem and neighbouring communities. Not only does the “tentacles” of tangled scraps endanger marine life, some of the waste gets washed into the city’s sewage system causing pollution and diseases.

Shein drops 700-1,000 new styles a day

In June 2022, a mountain of clothing appeared and went up in flames in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Many of the items, according to a group of volunteers, had store tags still attached. This is the product of waste colonialism, caused by the system of Western countries polluting  low and middle-income countries, who bear the brunt of the ecological impact. Impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat and flooding, are threatening global apparel hubs like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Vietnam. Not only do workers face potential displacement due to natural disasters, the production centres also risk losing jobs and export earnings, due to a lower social safety nets and lack of resources to protect and help them adapt to the effects of global warming. 

It is impossible to address sustainability and climate change without reducing production.  The current business model of fashion is built to fuel demand and supply, and it needs to be disrupted.

Transparency is Power


Real change in the fashion industry has to start from full supply chain transparency. This transparency will help to fix the power imbalance between garment workers and big corporations, allowing regulators to measure progress accurately and to ensure that brands are taking full responsibility for the harm they have inflicted on the environment and women of colour.

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Fast fashion giants, Zara and Shein, continue to dodge responsibility by failing to publish any supplier information, according to Remake’s 2024 Fashion Accountability Report.                                                                    

Many major brands share manufacturers – something that the industry keeps under wraps. In a 2019 report by JunegleScout, Lululemon, Under Armour and Athleta all source from the same supplier. Much of the value of a garment is inflated by brand perception and marketing. Brands may not want to disclose information because they want to preserve their image or to retain competitive contracts, but this forms a power imbalance that perpetuates inequality and exploitation.

Lululemon, Under Armour and Athleta all source from the same supplier.

Transparency means everything – from a brand’s  production volume, to their wages paid to workers and tracking of their total emissions. The 2024 Fashion Accountability Report utilizes an intersectional approach to overproduction and waste. Not only does it look at the reduction of textile waste and product life-extension through in-house repair or upcycling services, but it also considers ethical labour protocols, such as ensuring living wage for garment workers, and fair contracting and purchasing practices with suppliers. With data and metrics, advocates can hold big corporations accountable for what happens in the factories while  continuing to push for effective legally binding agreements and legislation that centre the wellbeing of the people throughout the chain.

By coming together as advocates and consumers, we can use our collective power to slow down fashion and reshape the industry into a place of creativity and collaboration rather than exploitation and waste.


Help Us Slow Down Fast Fashion By Taking the #NoNewClothes Challenge!

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