Design stealing: the exploitation of Independent Brands

Most people are aware of the environmental costs of fast fashion, but few are informed of the more subtle exploitation taking place behind the scenes, which regularly affects small businesses all over the world. Large fashion retailers, such as Shein, Zara and New Look, to name a few, are regularly stealing designs from independent brands or artists. Without the same economic resources behind them, these small businesses lose out time and again to fast fashion powerhouses. 

It’s not just high street shops who are involved. A recent example of design stealing landed the supermarket chain Asda in hot water. Alongside New Look, Asda’s ‘George’ clothing range began to stock t-shirts with the words “Home S’Cool” written across them – a phrase and design originally created by Faye Isaac, owner of the independent brand Annual Store. According to Isaac “they never approached me to ask if they could support me and work together”. Another kick in the teeth for Isaac was that Asda and New Look were selling the t-shirts for half the price of her original designs; made possible due to their manufacturing being both cheaper and faster. Despite Asda removing the design from their stores and website, Noisy May, the manufacturer behind the clothes stocked by New Look and Asda, has yet to take accountability or apologise. 

Baiia Swimwear, a company based in Australia, have had their designs stolen three times by fast fashion retailers such as Shein. But it’s not just the designs that have been exploited. Baiia Swimwear’s promotional photoshoots have been edited and used as advertisements by Shein for the cheaper, knock-off versions of Baiia’s work. No attempt to ask for permission to use their photos has ever been made. Given that Baiia Swimwear is a fully sustainable brand, the environmental impact of large fast fashion manufacturers stealing and producing their designs is particularly upsetting. 

Although whistleblowers such as DietPrada are helping to expose those who copy designs, it’s not enough to fight the ever-growing power of fast fashion empires. The majority of small brands sadly cannot take legal action due to a lack of economic resources, and even if they could, it would be considerably smaller than that of a worldwide manufacturer such as Zara. 

Perhaps we should consider it our moral duty as consumers to help small brands in battles such as these by purposefully avoiding sites that are renowned for ripping off others’ hard work, buying instead from the original brand if possible. However, it is highly likely that many consumers may not be aware that the seller has stolen a design and, of course, it is not a consumer’s job to ensure that businesses are operating ethically. 

More effort must be made to protect small businesses, artists and designers from having their work stolen. At the end of the day, fast fashion retailers are not only stealing work, but also the customers of small businesses, many of whom simply cannot compete with the cheaper manufacturing prices of larger retailers. Especially in these hard times, we can all try to support small, independent brands a little more. 

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About Author

Elizabeth Woor

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June 2022
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