Fast Fashion: Lawsuits at Zara, Shein and More

The earliest surviving record of fashion media was published in 1770, depicting that year’s trends. At the time, clothing fashion turned over yearly, though the changes were relatively minor. Instead of buying new clothing, old dresses were often reconstructed with new lines and shapes. However, there is evidence that trends for fashion accessories, like hats, turned over much more quickly. Since the industrial revolution, fashion turnover has accelerated from years to seasons, to now weekly.

This trend towards so-called fast fashion has given rise to concerns over labor conditions, over-consumption, and the environmental sustainability of garments themselves.


In 1975, Amancio Ortega Gaona opened the first Zara store in Spain. All the clothes were designed in-house and produced in small batches at nearby factories. Once the clothes were in the stores, managers reported back which items sold well, and the company would order further production runs of that design. 

In terms of litigation, over the past four years, Zara has faced a few common classes of suits. By far, the most common class of suits have been plaintiffs making various allegations that Zara is not doing their due diligence to make their stores and website accessible to people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Eight of these cases come from serial ADA filers and allege that Zara stores do not have wheelchair-friendly checkout counters. Four of these suits concern Zara’s website and one concerns Zara’s app, all alleging that the website/app does not gel with the screen-reading software blind individuals rely on to access the internet. Two suits concern Zara allegedly not selling braille gift cards. The final suit is a fairly typical ADA labor suit in which the plaintiff argued that Zara did not accommodate the medical issues she had while pregnant.

In terms of intellectual property, Zara has faced two suits over allegedly stolen lace patterns, two suits where the company allegedly put a trademarked logo on articles of clothing, and three patent suits over various bits of tech in Zara stores and on their websites. Zara also sued one company allegedly selling Zara knock-offs with Zara product photos and faced one suit over Zara allegedly selling knock-off Amiri jeans.

They have also faced four labor suits, mostly alleging wage theft, and four suits asserting the company owes the plaintiff for damages sustained from a product or in one case because of a car crash with a company vehicle.


If Zara can be said to have developed the fast fashion model, Shein is the company that truly capitalized on and ran with it. Shein used Zara’s model of small production runs to create limited availability and quick turnover but combined it with the power of social media and internet analytics to bring fast fashion to even greater speeds. And on top of all that, they began in Nanjing China, where many Western brands source their cheap plastic fabrics and cheap sewing labor. 

The company, however, has not been without its controversy. In terms of US litigation, has faced more lawsuits than any other company in this space. In particular, they have faced a slew of litigation over Shein allegedly infringing others’ copyrights and trademarks. Breaking down these eighty-one cases brought since 2019, thirty-one suits were brought by individual artists alleging that Shein is selling a direct copy of their art. Seventeen were brought by fabric makers who argue Shein used their copyrighted designs in clothing sold on the site. Sixteen were brought by name brands, such as Dr. Martens, claiming Shein is selling illegal knockoffs of their products. Fourteen concern allegedly infringing art that has been printed onto fabric, such as a t-shirt. Two suits were brought by lace makers arguing that Shein used their copyrighted patterns. And the final case was brought by Shein’s parent company, Zoetop, against two musicians who they allege fraudulently induced Shein to sponsor their tour.

The fast fashion giant has settled nearly all of these cases. Only three cases have publicly listed the settlement amount, all brought by individual plaintiffs, one for $3,775, one for $5,000, and one for $50,000. Assuming the greatest quantity is the mean settlement for these individual plaintiffs, since 2019, Shein has paid out $1.4 million in settlements to individual artists. The company reported over $2 billion in profits for fiscal year 2023. 


While Gap has faced nearly as much litigation as Shein, the suits have a rather different nature. Like Zara, they have faced a fair chunk of ADA litigation. These plaintiffs generally allege that Gap stores are not wheelchair accessible, as there is not sufficient space between clothing racks. These suits were overwhelmingly settled out of court.

Unique to Gap, the company faced fifteen suits in 2020 over allegedly unpaid rent at a number of their locations. In their defense, Gap argued that the COVID-19 lockdowns created circumstances that nulled their lease agreements, and thus they should not have to owe rent. These suits were eventually settled.


Like Zara and Gap, H&M has faced a fair bit of litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, for the Swedish company, they primarily allege that the H&M website and app are not accessible to screen-reading software, and thus are not accessible to blind and visually disabled individuals. As is the pattern, these suits were largely settled. 

One particular ADA case is of note. Plaintiff Ryan Scott claimed that after suffering serious medical issues with his voice and throat, H&M continued to require him to speak at length in meetings. After multiple doctor visits and endoscopies, he was eventually diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia, a rare disorder of the vocal folds. Even after the diagnosis, Scott claimed that H&M required him to speak at lengthy meetings without any aid or accommodation. When he later applied for a transfer, he alleged he was unable to interview due to a lack of flexibility around his disability and a doctor’s appointment he had at the same time. Scott eventually left the company. This case was settled for an undisclosed amount. 

Over the last couple years, H&M has faced three suits alleging they are committing fraud by falsely advertising their commitment to sustainability. Broadly, the fast fashion industry has recently made claims about recycling plastic fibers; however, piles of thrown-out clothes in Chile’s Atacama desert and across Ghana are growing, and investigative reporting by DW found that donated used clothing is burned for heat in Eastern Europe. Of the three such suits, the Judge ruled in favor of H&M in one, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed in another, and the third is still ongoing.

Forever 21

While Forever 21 has been involved in far less litigation than their US competitors, they have seen a share of copyright and trademark litigation second only to Shein. Most of these suits concern Forever 21’s alleged use of copyrighted lace patterns. Forever 21 has similarly been sued a few times over allegedly selling knockoffs of other companies’ products such as Tevas. As has been the pattern, nearly all of these claims were settled out of court.