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Forever 21 and the Consequences of Fast Fashion

It should have come as no surprise that Forever 21 was planning on filing for bankruptcy. In fact, one wonders why it had not reached its death knell sooner.

Founded back in the 1980s, Forever 21 gained success off of its fast fashion model, providing trendy clothes at low costs. Over the years, this model has fizzled, as Forever 21 has not been able to adapt to increased competition from other fast fashion outlets like Zara and H&M, that offer better quality garments at slightly higher prices than Forever 21. Additionally, with online companies like Fashion Nova on the rise, Forever 21 is no longer the fastest, cheapest, or trendiest.

This significant shift away from Forever 21 can be attributed to the changing ways in which people shop. In 2016, Forever 21 continued opening new stores and expanding existing ones, an ill-advised move given reports that about 60 percent of millennials make their purchases online and prefer online shopping. Other competitors adapted to what some call “the retail apocalypse,” but Forever 21 has been slow to downsize their presence in malls.

In 2016, the U.S. Labor Department investigated Forever 21 for unethical business practices occurring here in the United States. The Los Angeles Times reported that garment factories in Southern California paid workers a little less than $4 an hour, and $7 an hour on average. This was $3 less than the minimum wage in California. Forever 21 was one of the many retailers embroiled in this wage theft scandal, and was responsible for some of the worst offenses.

Fast fashion itself is beyond problematic, because it relies on unethical business practices. Fast fashion retailers contract out to garment factories, distancing themselves from what occurs on factory floors. Because most fast fashion retailers do not directly employ the workers making their clothing, they are able to shield themselves from legal responsibilities for poor practices. The retailers set the price and order the manufacturers to make a garment for a specific, very low cost, to the detriment of the underpaid workers. Fast fashion encourages this type of behavior, and when retailers get caught, they do not have to face the consequences.

Fast fashion is sustained by the sweatshops where the clothes are produced. In fact, without sweatshops, fast fashion would likely not survive because it relies on manufacturers underpaying their employees. Most retailers work with factories in developing nations because it is easier to take advantage of the workers due to a lack of labor laws. Some factories even rely on the work of small children. Many factories encourage unsafe practices that retailers choose to ignore because, in their world, profits are more important than upholding human rights.

The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh was a tragic incident that helped bring attention to the dark secrets of the fast fashion industry. More than a thousand people died and thousands more were injured after an 8-story building known as Rana Plaza collapsed, in the deadliest garment factory disaster in history.Forbes reported that Zara, one of Forever 21’s competitors, was one of the many clothing chains that were housed in Rana Plaza. Despite this tragedy, it seems that fast fashion retailers have not made any major steps towards improvement and consumers continue to shop at such retailers.

The potential of Forever 21 filing for bankruptcy should be celebrated as a victory, as it could be an indicator that the fast fashion model is not sustainable. However, despite Forever 21’s collapse, many other retailers pursue the fast fashion model and work with unethical manufacturers. Ultimately, it will take a shift in consumer behavior to ensure the end of this business model.

New retailers have taken note of these human rights violations and have built their businesses off of ethical or clean standards. These retailers tend to be pricier, but some consumers are more willing to splurge when they know that a retailer is cruelty-free. Everlane, a retailer founded in 2010, has built its marketing strategy off of its ethical values for manufacturing. Thus far, Everlane has been successful. It is not a fast fashion retailer, but its success may be a signal that a new dawn is coming to the retail business. One can only hope that ethical business practices will become the new norm for retail and that consumers will come to value clothes that were ethically made.

Forever 21, Zara, and H&M may be affordable but can cause the violation of human rights. The fall of the fast fashion industry is not something that should be mourned. In fact, it signals progress. But, bankruptcy is not necessarily the end for these fast fashion companies. Forever 21 could bounce back, but doing so will require adapting to new consumer practices and improving the quality of styles they release. Additionally, they should strive to commit to ethical practices and as consumers, we should demand nothing less.