Is Old Navy Ethical?

storefront of old navy with logo
A screenshot taken December 2020

Is Old Navy ethical?

In the early days of StyleWise, I wore a lot of Old Navy.

I had just discovered corporate social responsibility reports and Old Navy (more specifically, its parent company, GAP Inc.) had a good one. In fact, it still looks good. You can view 2018’s report through this link (click the first link and a PDF will open).

The report is really a stunning, hope-inspiring document, telling of progress, using the word sustainability frequently, and emphasizing the important role of women throughout their supply chain and in their corporate office.

And I am, to be honest, impressed by the level of transparency they provide around where they’re not succeeding (namely in water reduction and efforts to provide fair employment to women in garment factories).

In 2013, that was enough for me. It looked legit, and it’s not as if they’re lying.

It’s just that they’re not telling the whole truth.

highlights from Old Navy's 2018 CSR report - is Old Navy ethical?

The Truth About Old Navy

I had a hard time researching for this post because GAP Inc. has been notoriously secretive about their factories. But, according to a recent article at Just Style, they finally released a list of their suppliers in September.

Countries of production include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and several more.

More than half of the countries in which GAP Inc. does business have poor government oversight regarding garment factory wages and safety, and most if not all participate in sub-contracting practices in order to meet quick production turnaround, which limits the parent companies’ ability to monitor factory standards throughout their supply chain.

Old Navy brought in $8 billion in revenue last year (compare that to Everlane’s $200 million), an indicator of its scale. This makes it even more likely that subcontractors are being used in production, and reveals why GAP Inc. would find it necessary to contract with production facilities in nearly 30 countries around the world.

Basically, even if GAP Inc. is doing all they say they’re doing – and they probably are – they’re only skimming the top layer of their supply chain.

While they have incorporated several metrics for improvement into their CSR report – like using all “better” sourced cotton by 2020 – claims are often so vague that it’s unclear to the consumer what success would actually look like.

What They Tell Consumers

There’s also the fact that several sustainability metrics noted in the CSR document “resolve” issues in ways that essentially get them off the hook.

For instance, under “Consumer Use + End of Life” on page 11, they say that the primary way they’re dealing with circularity is by educating consumers about proper cleaning and care on social media. While this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it doesn’t actually work toward circularity at all.

Quality Issues

In my experience as a thrift shop manager, I saw lots of Old Navy come in over the years, and I can say with absolute confidence that fabric quality is abysmal.

It wasn’t always this way. When I shopped at Old Navy in middle school, the knit cotton was still thick in that early 2000s way and the denim was real denim that held up over the years.

When Old Navy rebranded about 5 years ago to compete with the “faster fashion” model of stores like Forever 21 and H&M – who generally appeal to a younger audience – textiles suffered.

The donors who gave us Old Navy items generally gave us a lot of it and, in many cases, donated on multiple occasions. The reason why? The stuff was trashed, totally unsaleable. Excluding some children’s items that hadn’t been worn, we had to send all of it for textiles recycling.

I’m not the only one with this experience. This Reddit thread almost unanimously reviews Old Navy as cheap and disposable.

The Good News

Still, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has applauded the fact that they’ve released a supplier list, because this will help watchdog agencies do their own assessments.

While GAP Inc. themselves may not be fully aware of the scale of garment industry issues, access to their supply chain will mean industry experts can track their CSR claims more effectively in the near future.

The Verdict

Old Navy’s parent company, GAP Inc., has not provided sufficient evidence that they’re doing business in a counter-cultural way. Rather, their CSR report reinforces typical greenwashing language in the garment industry, providing many metrics that can’t really be measured in any meaningful sense.

Old Navy also happens to be the fastest fashion model in the whole GAP Inc. conglomerate, and their inattention to garment quality underscores that even if many sustainability and ethical standards were being met, the longevity of the garment and attention to circularity can matter the most when it comes to ecological claims.

Ethical Alternatives

There happen to be lots of ethical brands with similar aesthetics to Old Navy, many of them at lower price points.

You can see them here:

Ethical Alternatives to Old Navy

If you’re trying to shop in bulk for kids, I always recommend searching Ebay or Poshmark for clothing bundles, or investing in a few Hanna Andersson pieces, which hold up much better and can be passed down.

I recognize that there aren’t always good alternatives when you’ve found a brand that fits you, but I guarantee you’ll find greater satisfaction in clothing made of better fabrics if not with better supply chain ethics.

pinterest pin that reads, "is old navy fast fashion? -" over lilac background. Storefront of Old Navy shows on lower half of graphic

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. We ought to be wise and only allow our hard earned money to go to those in free countries with a practiced democratic system. To give to our enemies is foolish and only enables more pain and suffering.

    1. That’s all well and good, but an argument could be made that this is no longer possible in the globalized manufacturing and consumer goods industry. Sourcing a product comprised of democratically-grown, harvested, dyed, woven, and sewn clothing is very difficult. There are a few options, but certainly not enough to be accessible. The other issue is that, while governments may be enemies, the people within countries of production are and will continue to be exploited. Without advocating for American exceptionalism or saviorism, I think it’s worthwhile to consider how American corporations could be held accountable to higher ethical standards.

  2. Ethical, means doing whats right when customers spend money. Old Navy is a failure at that. Try navigating their web sight sometime, and finding add that make it clear to the consumer what they are buying. And than there is that lack of customer service. And if they get your money for a wrong order, one will play hell getting it back.

  3. Ethically made clothing comes at a cost. The vast majority of people won’t spend the money. They want to fill there walk in closet with cheap clothing they can can wear a couple times and toss it. The fashion industry wants you to update your wardrobe ever season. Being fashionable be is unethical.

    1. Do you think there’s any room for a kind of being fashionable that isn’t trend-oriented or are we too far gone? I think there’s also a crisis of marketing. So many brands are spinning themselves as ethical now that it can be hard for consumers to know what’s actually fairly made and sustainable.

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