Free People (FP) is the quintessentially bohemian powerhouse in women’s apparel. They’re known for their loose fitting and hippie-chic designs, as well as their relatively high price range compared with brands of a similar caliber. Free People was founded in 2001 as a part of the URBN family of brands, which includes Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, BHLDN, Terrain, Menus & Venues, and Nuuly. In the past, Free People has been accused of appropriating Native American designs without crediting them whatsoever, an all-too-common trend for “boho” fashion brands. I wanted to investigate if the brand undertakes endeavors that match their environmentally conscious image, or if it fails to meet the mark.
Free People uses a multitude of materials in their products. URBN has a page detailing the origins of its raw materials. According to this page, Free People is committed to using responsibly sourced cotton (BCI, US Cotton, or recycled cotton) in all direct sourced products. Only US Cotton is traceable to the farm. Their directly sourced denim is made from US cotton and recycled cotton, while their linen is 93% sourced from EU Flax Linen. This non-GMO and organic company is certified by Bureau Veritas. Furthermore, 79% of their viscose is responsibly and sustainably sourced. While these numbers show progress away from harmful sourcing practices, they also beg the question of where the rest of those materials come from. For example, from where is the other 21% of viscose sourced? Additionally, these aren’t all of the materials used in Free People clothing. There are no published reports on others, such as polyamide and polyester. It’s difficult not to assume the worst in the absence of any data on these materials. Polyamide, also known as nylon, releases nitrous oxide gas into the atmosphere as a byproduct. This gas is 300 times more potent than CO2 and traps far more infrared radiation than methane. Polyamide also doesn’t compost or biodegrade. As it begins its lengthy decomposing process, it releases microfibers, chemicals, and greenhouse gases into the environment. Sustainable alternatives that Free People could look into include lyocell or cupro. They could even recycle their materials! The same dilemma exists for polyester. Free People could opt for more ethical and green alternatives, but it chooses not to do this.
The lack of a sustainability report makes it quite difficult to analyze how Free People makes their products. As mentioned above, most of their raw materials are sustainably sourced, but we know nothing beyond that. What does “sustainably sourced” even mean? The cotton is certified by Bureau Veritas, but the website mentions nothing about whether viscose is certified. Free People’s website fails to deliver on a clear vision for sustainability. They don’t outline any goals for sustainability practices, which would, at the very least, be a step in the right direction.
FP’s partnership with Levi’s water<less line, which has saved 4.2 billion liters of water from the denim finishing process since 2011, is a start in the right direction. 50% of their direct sourced fabrics come from mills in line with the OEKO-Tex standard. In terms of packaging, Free People has completely eliminated their gift box program. Presently, all packaging is made of reusable and washable natural cottons. I wish I could add more to this section, but finding any information on the method of sourcing at Free People was very challenging. In the future, I would encourage them to publish what they do to prevent consumers thinking the worst of them.
Starting with the good, Free People has an exhaustive list of campaigns empowering their community. They work with The Wardrobe, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that pairs financially disadvantaged people with stylists to find employment suiting their qualifications. Free People donated $2.5 million worth of merchandise in response to the pandemic last year. They have also committed to donating $100,000 to Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) this year. BFAS is a non-profit dedicated to saving all shelter animals in the United States by 2025. Free People is also a proud supporter of the National Parks Foundation (NPF). They organized a collection of 3000 pounds of trash across the country in support of the foundation. Furthermore, they donate $0.10 per transaction to the NPF if the customer uses a reusable bag. Last year, Free People funded an all-female crew to restore habitats in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. Free People also donated $50,000 worth of self care products and art supplies to the William Way Centre’s trans Peer to Peer Counselling program and their Creative Art Therapy classes. This centre is dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues and empowerment. Free People’s team also organized a two-part COVID relief program for communities in Guatemala. Each purchase of a handwoven face mask supports the production of two others. One will be for the customer, and the other for either a Latino woman in need, a migrant woman in need, or a member of a hard-to-reach community in Guatemala. FP also donated 70,000 units of hand sanitiser to these communities. Also, in response to the pandemic, FP donated over 1,600 meals to Philadelphia-based families in need through Philabundance. However, the organization most involved with Free People has to be Girls Inc., a non-profit dedicated to girls’ empowerment. According to their website, FP donates 1% of its proceeds to Girls Inc. Everyday, 100% of their US stores host advocacy events to support the movement. 18000 apparel unites were donated to the nonprofit in 2020 and 2000 hours of wellness and mentorship programming were set up for the girls.
Free People also has a listed commitment to minorities. They claim to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities by promoting Hollaback!, an anti-harassment organization, on their website. However, it takes quite a bit of digging to find this page. In response to the George Floyd protests in summer 2020, they released a series of initiatives in support of the black community. These included a comprehensive review of in-store racial profiling, the formation of a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, diversity and inclusion training for all store employees, more recruiting at HBCUs, and increased representation of black models, influencers, and brand partners. Furthermore, Free People committed to sponsoring a full four-year scholarship for a black fashion design student. However, I couldn’t find out if this came to fruition. They also want to donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund, The Innocence Project, the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, the Equal Justice Initiative, and Year Up.
However, there is a notable lack of information about worker conditions and safety on Free People and URBN’s websites. They disclose nothing about the location of production, the rights of those working there, and the laws they do or don’t abide to. Thus, customers don’t know if they are buying sweatshop-made garments. This lack of transparency is most likely a sign of poor workplace conditions.