Is Free People Ethical? + Alternative Brands
Free People offers beautiful bohemian styles at a steep price point, making many people mistakenly believe that it’s an ethical brand. Unfortunately, Free People is owned by URBN, a massive fashion conglomerate also responsible for Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, among others.
In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into their sustainability and ethics, plus offer some alternative brands with better track records.
Free People’s Sustainability and Ethics
One of the main issues with Free People it’s constantly releasing new styles and feeding into the trend cycle. Just on the “new today” page, they have 110 items. Fashion can’t be sustainable if it doesn’t slow down and focus on producing less.
Free People’s main collection is also often made of unsustainable fabrics like viscose and polyester. Conventional viscose production can lead to deforestation and often involves toxic chemicals, while synethics like polyester shed microplastics and take hundreds of years to break down.
They do have a small Care FP collection featuring some actually sustainable brands like Veja and Boyish, but their own products in this line aren’t actually that sustainable. Many of them are made with conventional cotton, and while it is a natural fabric, it’s water-intensive and can lead to soil degradation and water pollution from pesticides. Some of the items contain organic cotton, which is better, but it’s usually only a fraction of the materials used. Other pieces contain some recycled polyester, which is better than virgin synthetics, but there is no literacy around microplastic pollution.
URBN has partnered with FABSCRAP, a New York non-profit dedicated to recycling or upcycling deadstock/surplus fabric. URBN states that they recycled 1500 pounds of fabric in 2019 and that they’re helping FABSCRAP expand into other regions. It’s unclear what percentage of their unused fabric is recycled though, as 1500 pounds actually seems like very little for such a massive conglomerate (the less waste the better, of course, but some transparency around these numbers would be helpful).
There is no information around Free People’s dyes or water usage. They have, however, taken measures to reduce waste from shopping bags by donating an unspecified amount of money to the National Park Foundation for every bag refused in-store. According to Free People, they’ve saved over 510,000 bags. They also are begining to introduce a “biodegradable or similar, non-single use plastic bag” for their clothing, though it’s unclear when poly bags will be totally replaced. (Keep in mind that biodegradable is also not the same as compostable, the latter of which is regulated and better for the environment).
Free People states that it has a Code of Conduct that covers:
- no child or forced labor
- no corporal punishment
- no discrimination
- compliance with wage and hour requirements, health and safety and environmental laws
They screen suppliers and also use third-party audits to assess compliance with the Code of Conduct. It’s unclear, however, how the suppliers have fared in those audits, who is conducting them, and how often they occur. A large company like Free People/URBN should seek out reputable certifications like Fair Trade, SA8000, or B Corp to legitimize their labor standards.
Furthermore, there is no proof that they ensure a living wage. In fact, Urban Outfitters (also in the URBN conglomerate) is one of the biggest offenders of wage theft in California. In LA, the average garment worker earns $5-6 per hour because of wage theft.
URBN also still has not paid for cancelled orders during the start of COVID-19. These cancelled orders by many major brands caused garment workers around the world to lose their already-meager wages and only 3% said they had enough to eat in April 2020.
Free People partners with some non-profits, including the aforementioned National Park Foundation and Girls, Inc., which is dedicated to helping girls overcome economic, gender, and social barriers. They state that 1% of every FP Movement purchase supports fitness programming at Girls, Inc. They’ve also donated activewear to 13,000+ members of Girls, Inc.
It’s unclear exactly how much money is being donated to these causes, however.
Size Inclusivity and Adaptive Options
Free People’s size range is XS-XL (some items also come in XXS). Size inclusivity is a problem across the fashion industry, so they can certainly improve by expanding their size range. Since Free People has flowier styles, some items could theoretically could be worn by certain plus size folks, but all the models are straight sized.
There are no adaptive options for people with disabilities. This again is another issue in the fashion industry, and it would be great if such a big brand like Free People could make adaptive options.
Free People has been angora-free as of 2016, but they still use leather, wool, and lambskin (in very few cases recycled). For the wool, there is no information about the treatment of the sheep. For the leather and lambskin, there is no information about the tanning process, which can involve toxic chemicals. And while some may consider leather a byproduct of the meat industry, it ultimately increases their profit margins and is more of a coproduct.
Free People does partner with the Best Friend Animal Society to raise awareness for shelter animals, and they committed to donating $100k to them. They even pledged to save all the shelter animals in the US from slaughter by 2025, but it’s unclear how exactly they’re going about this. It’s also a little strange for them to use animal products from likely-inhumane processes while talking about saving shelter pets.
Free People has a Diversity and Inclusion Committee but they don’t have any listed goals or ongoing initiatives.
They put out a statement during the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, but it doesn’t look like they’ve followed up yet on their progress. Last year, along with their own donation and matching employee donations three-to-one, URBN did donate almost 1 million dollars to BIPOC community organizations. Considering that their net earnings are 100-200 million in a span of a few months though, this is a small percentage of their profits.
Ethical Alternatives to Free People
Free People is ultimately not a very ethical brand, so you may be wondering where to shop instead.
The best alternatives to fast fashion include buying less and buying used, and Free People is luckily highly thriftable. Because the clothing is pricey, it has good resale value, so it’s also commonly found on platforms like Poshmark (you can get $10 off your first purchase with my referral link),
But, if you can’t find what you need secondhand, here are some brands with higher standards of sustainability and ethics. Some of these are affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases. This income helps me keep my blog running.
Whimsy + Row—similar aesthetic to Free People; feminine and modern clothing made with natural materials in small batches by workers who are paid fair wages. Use code WANDR10 for 10% off.
People Tree—UK brand with Fair Trade clothing in classy, relaxed, and bohemian silhouettes.
Mayamiko—bold pieces made from locally-sourced fabric in Malawi by artisans who are paid a living wage. (use code LILYFANG10 for 10% off)
Hackwith Design House (up to 4X)—gorgeous, flowy staple pieces sewn in-house in Minnesota
Loud Bodies (up to 10X)—beautiful dresses made from natural materials in a small atelier in Romania. Seamstresses are paid nearly twice the minimum wage.
Luna + Sun—Australian brand manufacturing locally with Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation. Has flowy silhouettes made from natural fabrics. Use code LILYFANG for 15% off.
Tradlands (up to 5X)—cozy knits and flowy dresses made by workers who are paid a living wage. For first-time customers, use code IMPERFECTIDEALIST15 for 15% off.
Son de flor—cottagecore linen dresses made in Lithuania by three local seamstresses. Linen is produced responsibly in the EU.
Christy Dawn (up to 3X)—ethereal dresses crafted locally in the US by workers who are paid a living wage.
Nudie Jeans—jeans made from organic cotton. Pays a living wage at selected suppliers and are investigating the opportunity in the rest of their supply chain. Has a repair program and closed-loop collection.
Check out my ethical and sustainable brand directory for more recommendations.
Let me know if you have any other brand recommendations or experiences you’d like to share about Free People! Feel free to also suggest other brands for this series, and check out my post on how to tell if a brand is sustainable to learn more.
Great overview of all the important points! Using animal products but talking about saving shelter animals is such a common contradiction, and it seems like Free People is actually following the mainstream for everything: leather is fine, but pets in shelters need to be saved; we don’t allow child labor, but simply stating that without proof is enough; we’ll post about BLM, but that’s it. I think bigger brands should be leaders not followers of what their average customer would say or do.
Absolutely! It seems like they’re trying to seem like they’re doing good things without actually having that intention or following through. They have so much power and could use it to do a a lot of good.
I definitely don’t shop at Free People, but I have come across some of their pieces while thrifting (unfortunately nothing my size though). Love this list of alternatives!