Why fast fashion is accused of copying independent and sustainable brands

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Industry experts explain why fast fashion companies are accused of copying ideas and designs from smaller, more sustainable brands, and what can be done about that.

Fast fashion fuels the fashion industry. It’s everywhere we look: crammed in the corner of every high street, plastered on every other bus stop, slapped all over social media. This mass production of clothing by cutting corners, including refusing to pay important parts — particularly, people — of the supply chain and using unsustainable materials is everywhere and catching everyone’s eyes.

It appeals to consumerism and the constant demand for new clothes. These clothes are produced quickly at a low cost, then sold cheaply, which appeals to consumers. But that causes problems for the producers.

Despite this cutting of corners — which has many ethical and environmental implications — the fashion industry continues to flourish as a multibillion-pound industry. Contrastingly, sustainable brands remain smaller and lesser-known despite their ethical and environmental efforts.

However, people are starting to support such independent brands more, as sustainable and ethical fashion ratings brand Good On You reports. And with this change in fashion habits, fast fashion brands are inclined to keep up. And they’re looking in the direction of smaller, more sustainable brands for inspiration. But, more specifically, they’ve been accused of looking in this direction to steal their ideas.

Just last year, fast-fashion retailer Shein was accused of stealing a design from small independent brand Emma Warren Design. Founder and designer Emma Warren explained that the retailer sold a hoodie with her exact design on it. But that is not uncommon. In 2019, Forever 21 was criticised for posting an anti-fast fashion artist’s image on Instagram without their consent. Furthermore, in 2016 fast fashion brand Zara was accused of copying an artist’s designs. The independent artist, Tuesday Bassen, posted a photo comparing her designs to Zara’s, calling it out for copying her work for profit. Following this, Bassen’s friend and fellow designer, Adam J Kurtz, accused Zara of copying the work of 12 independent artists, including his own.


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A post shared by Tuesday Bassen (@tuesdaybassen)

A fashion stylist with a passion for sustainable and ethical fashion, Miranda Holder affirms that “fast fashion brands are often known for pinching styles and ideas from top designers”. The founder of the Conscious Fashion Campaign, Kerry Bannigan, says they especially “[steal] ideas from independents”. “They will often bring [high-end looks] to a more attainable level,” Holder explains. “They may want to be seen as trying to be more sustainable”.

But he says the problem here is that their production processes are anything but sustainable. Holder stresses this: “They are often massive machines that will take time to change their production lines.”

Ellen Miller, co-founder and director of Daylight Lingerie, discusses her company’s research into the production process of fast fashion, from sourcing materials to marketing clothes. She highlights the unfair treatment of cotton farmers and other ethical issues, explaining that these brands “encourage increased consumption to keep up with the latest trends and avoid ‘outfit repeating’”.

Miller suggests that they simply want to be seen as sustainable, instead of actively trying to be more sustainable. She expands on this by calling these brands out for greenwashing, “spending more time, effort and money on advertising and making their products seem more environmentally friendly than actually minimising their negative environmental impact”.

Shop Like You Give A Damn co-founder Kim van Langelaar elaborates the other ethical issues associated with this production process, including unsafe working conditions, wages that make essentials unaffordable, child labour exploitation, misogyny and racism.

fast fashion workersVan Langelaar says this duplicating “does seem to happen regularly in the fashion industry”, but adds that it is “incredibly unfair and extremely frustrating for a brand to develop such unique designs… to then have [them] stolen by large corporations”.

Miller highlights the financial aspect, voicing her concern that “innovative ideas, such as our biodegradable bras, could be copied and produced on a larger scale and at a much lower price”. With Daylight Lingerie releasing the world’s first fully biodegradable, underwired bra, Miller has a reason to be concerned. If this is the case, she says there is a risk of overproduction and waste, as well as “these companies cutting corners to reduce prices perhaps by using low-paid workers”. That, she adds, contradicts the goal of sustainability.

But how do these big brands get away with it? “Fashion is exempt from copyright, because it’s seen as functional. So brands aren’t protected against this,” Miller explains.

Van Langelaar agrees, explaining that the legal side is complicated: “In the US, for example, although fashion designers are considered artists, their work is not protected.” She ascribes that to a 200-year-old US court ruling, which states that clothing is a utilitarian item and therefore can’t be copyrighted. Van Langelaar adds that these smaller brands don’t have the resources to take legal action or go through expensive court processes.

fashion copyrightSince smaller brands don’t always have a legal leg to stand on, we must work to create change as consumers, both by encouraging brands to change their ways, and changing our own. “It would be good to encourage product descriptions to include ‘inspired by’,” suggests Miller. “There will always be a demand for cheaper versions of products and we can’t stop brands, but at least this would give credit to the original designer and give customers the option to consider the original item,” she explains.

Another great idea Miller has is for brands to include information concerning “whether workers were paid fairly or materials were sustainably sourced” on product descriptions and labels. Then, as a consumer, “require [this] information about their production processes,” stresses van Langelaar. “You have the power to vote with your wallet.”

Holder agrees with this, noting that consumers drive the market: “When we change our habits, the big machines will.” Both Holder and van Langelaar admit that sustainable brands are more expensive, but emphasise the importance of the old adage, quality over quantity.

Van Langelaar explains the Cost Per Wear concept: dividing the item’s price and cost of maintenance by the total number of times worn. For instance, if you buy a fast fashion shirt for £5 and wear it ten times, it costs you 50p per wear, whereas a sustainable shirt worth £40 that you’ll wear 80 times will cost you the same. Overall, she and Holder both call for consumers to call these brands out “for their unethical practices”.

It is clear that fast fashion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon (except to steal smaller brands’ ideas), so it’s important to consider what’s necessary to make changes within the fashion industry. Van Langelaar’s main methods are to educate by increasing public awareness and facilitate by offering better alternatives.

“It is important to educate people about the cost of fast fashion,” Holder says. And Miller agrees, emphasising that brands have a responsibility to inform about the importance of shopping sustainably. Van Langelaar adds that “people need to know” because they can then create positive change.

fast fashion copying designsRegarding facilitating this change, Holder proposes creating more ranges in sustainable brands, like “types of clothes and cost, as a lot of the younger generations can’t afford to shop sustaixnably”.

For people who find sustainable brands inaccessible, they can still “support them by liking and sharing their work to raise awareness”, advises Bannigan from the Conscious Fashion Campaign. She also demands “the need to see policy and legislation from governments and regulating bodies to uphold the sector”. As a brand, van Langelaar’s Shop Like You Give A Damn “encourages people to shop compassionately. And as little as possible.”

This continuing education and facilitation could encourage people to change their shopping habits and reduce instances of fast fashion brands copying ideas from smaller, more sustainable brands.

Chloë Morgan
Chloë Morgan
Chloë is a recent English graduate from Loughborough University. She tries to use her writing to raise awareness of important issues in an attempt to help others. Her passions lie in social justice, mental health and sustainability. After taking part in 'Veganuary', she developed an interest in veganism and recently went vegan. She is also trying to boycott fast fashion as much as possible by shopping second-hand and more sustainably.