Fair Trade Fashion at Walmart? Free Assembly Review + Discussion

fair trade fashion at Walmart
fair trade fashion at Walmart

Fair Trade Fashion at Walmart?

When Whitney Bauck at Fashionista published an article on Walmart’s new fair trade and sustainable-ish line, Free Assembly, I’m pretty sure I made a shocked-emoji face 😲 Is it possible that there is fair trade fashion at Walmart?

From Fashionista:

Though Walmart positioned Free Assembly as its fashion-forward “timeless essentials” offering in press releases, this focus on sustainable materials — though largely unmentioned by the company — is rather remarkable. Based on materials alone, it could put Free Assembly on a similar playing field to many brands that have built their entire audience around promoting sustainability. And though its prices are alarmingly low (pieces top out at $45 on the higher end), Free Assembly’s reliance on Fair Trade factories, at least in its denim line, is similar to what many “ethical fashion” brands use to assure customers that they’re not underpaying their workers.

Of all the companies to release an “ethical” collection, Walmart was last on my list. For one, their market share is so astronomical they don’t really need to find new ways to attract customers. And, like many in the ethical fashion space, Walmart is a convenient symbol of all that’s wrong with unfettered Capitalism. Though, in reality, it may be negligibly better than Amazon, Walmart seems to be everyone’s favorite punching bag.

This isn’t unwarranted. Walmart has a history of providing poor wages to their employees, putting mom-and-pop stores out of business, buying up smaller companies to reduce competition, and – maybe most relevant for this post – sourcing from sweatshops. (Surprisingly, they do pay a great deal in corporate taxes, unlike Amazon.)

That being said, Walmart hatred is – and always has been – tied up with classism. It is easy to despise Walmart because, unlike Target or other big box stores, it is where low income people shop. Middle and upper class disgust for the poor is on display when Walmart comes up, and it’s not a good look (to put it mildly).

When word spread that one could find fair trade fashion at Walmart, I saw some influencers react with smugness and disgust rather than celebration. I saw comparably few people do this when Target released fair trade denim. Some even suggested that this move would be “too confusing” for customers, as if no positive change can occur without total overhaul (I know this is a popular idea right now, but we should be more careful to understand what we’re replacing things with after we’ve burned them down!)

But I just don’t believe that. I discovered fair trade while organizing new merchandise as a Hobby Lobby employee. Hobby Lobby could be renamed Sweatshop Land, and yet it is where transformation began to occur for me.

While it’s true that Walmart would not have made this move unless it could monetarily benefit them, isn’t that what we wanted – for fair trade to become the norm? And if the quality and fabrication is markedly better than their sweatshop products, this could very well push them to move more of their production to more ethical and sustainable avenues.

I agree with most critics that paying lip service to sustainability without really doing anything is harmful. Companies who, say, use a synthetic textile that is theoretically recyclable without offering the means to recycle it, or those who release items comprised of a negligible amount of recycled content are really playing a marketing game. But those who show a commitment to improvement and a real grasp for what it takes to move toward ethics shouldn’t be ruled out just yet. Let’s see if Free Assembly makes the cut!

Free Assembly Review

fair trade fashion at Walmart - ethical denim

Exposed Button Essential Slim Jeans, $27

Ethical Specs? Fair trade certified, LEED certified factory, closed loop manufacturing, natural dyes, organic cotton 🙂

Quality? Because these jeans tick so many ethical and sustainable boxes, I figured they would cut costs in the fabrication. But these jeans are mid-weight, seem well-sewn, and have sturdy buttons and an exposed button fly that doesn’t pull awkwardly like other iterations of this style do (I chalk this up to using the correct weight of denim and closely spaced buttons). They smell, strangely, like white vinegar, maybe due to the natural dye processing. They also feel very similar to wearing a pair of Everlane jeans.

Fit? I ordered a size 10 in these, which I expected to fit slightly loose at the waist. But these are a snug (but not too snug) fit, so I’d say they run about a half-size smaller than the size chart indicates. They’re not ideal if you’re curvy at the hips, but the bit of stretch helps.

fair trade fashion at Walmart - tunic sweater

Turtleneck Tunic Sweater in Buckwheat, $25

Ethical Specs? The tag is made with recycled polyester 🙁

Quality? The “sustainability” aspect of this sweater is laughable since only the tag is recycled. Just goes to show that it’s a good idea to read the full product listing. I suspect the disparity in ethics is the result of these items being produced in different factories. I fear that the polyester/nylon blend will pill pretty quickly, but I’ll see how it goes. Worst case scenario, this will make a great lounge sweater due to the tunic length.

Fit? I ordered a Medium in this and feel that it fits as shown in the product images. I could have size down to a Small, but I like the oversized fit.

Concluding Thoughts

The denim is a real win in my book: good quality, decent fit, and great ethical credentials. The sweater, on the other hand, is an example of greenwashing: the sustainability aspect is so negligible as to be laughable. That being said, I think Free Assembly is comparable in quality to Madewell and Everlane. Just check the listing for ethical details before you shop!

See the Free Assembly Collection here.

Free Assembly has women’s and men’s collections, and is sized from 0-22, or XS-XXXL.

More in Personal Style

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. I bought a pair of these and have to agree, about a half size smaller then indicated. I am curvy at the hips and they are so snug that they are nearly uncomfortable. Thinking to just go back to my Levi’s and Lee Jeans.

    1. Yeah, they’re not super well suited to a curvy fit. I gained a bit of weight and ended up giving mine to a friend. What styles do you like from Levi’s and Lee?

  2. Thank you for this review. It helps those of us who are trying to make as many steps in the right direction as we can and don’t always understand the the undertones of what is going on.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. That’s my hope!

  3. These are really excellent jeans (I like them better than my $$$$$) denim, but you are deluding yourself if you think there is anything ethical about buying jeans at Walmart. You did fall for the free washing, tho.

    1. I’m not really sure why you needed to insult me. I stated that the jeans have a fair trade certification and a LEED certified factory, both of which require external auditing. In the global manufacturing industry, that’s about the best you can ask for outside of a return to small scale, local production. And I also went into the post with a sense of curiosity rather than a determination to make them fit my criteria. Ethics in the fashion industry is pretty murky and there are literally no choices that tick all the boxes, which I have made clear repeatedly throughout my writing. I also pointed out the issues with Walmart in several paragraphs before writing about these products.

  4. Super interesting. I ordered a pair of jeans, as my cat tends to shred all my bottoms /eyeroll. It would be great to have a more ethical, lower priced option!

    1. Great! I hope they work for you.

  5. This is a really surprising turn of events! I appreciate the review–I wonder if this is a similar move that we will see from other big brands? Some decently sustainably/ethically produced things mixed into a line of things doing the bare minimum…as if we needed another thing to research!!

    1. It’s kind of what’s been happening already with Madewell, J. Crew, and Target. I suspect that if more companies make an investment in fair trade certifying whole factories, like J. Crew did, we’ll see a lot more large scale companies happily commit to fair trade production since infrastructure will already be in place.

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