Can Forever 21 Ever Move Beyond Fast Fashion? Behind the Label


ColumnForever 21. Is there any brand more synonymous with fast fashion these days? The stores sit in virtually every shopping mall in America—just like McDonald’s at rest stops. But lately, the company has been making some sustainability and ethical claims. Do they have any merit? We go behind the label to find out.

The Los Angeles-based fashion giant got its start just over 30 years ago in April, 1984 in a small 900 square foot location. Forever 21 now boasts more than 600 stores in the U.S. and 20 countries around the world with sales of $3.7 billion in 2013. According to Forbes, it’s the 122nd largest privately held company in the country.

The Good

This is a short list, but perhaps it’s a sign of more good things to come. The reality is, Forever 21 is not known for it’s social or environmental commitments; it’s better known for its serious lack in these categories. A Google search of “Forever 21 sustainability” landed me more results about how the brand is a disgrace to the planet than anything else. Of course, for 13-year-old girls, it’s a haven of colors and styles that are budget-friendly and fun. (If only our children aspired to be Forever 40.)

Most recently, Forever 21 began installing a 5.1-megawatt solar power system at its headquarters in Los Angeles. TriplePundit reports that the solar panel manufacturer, PermaCity Solar, calls it “the best solar technology available on the market today.” Forever 21’s solar system will create enough power to keep 1,450 homes in the area running. It’s the equivalent of taking 1,200 cars off of the road.

Forever 21 also claims to lead its own “Vendor Audit Program” in order to verify the fair treatment of its workers, most of whom are overseas. This includes ensuring adequate pay and working conditions. According to Triple Pundit, the audit program “allegedly maintains a highly trained Vendor Compliance Team, which promotes and enforces lawful and ethical operations at factory sites. Further detailed information on the success and compliance of the program is currently unavailable.”

The brand was named VMSD’s retailer of the year in 2010 for it’s “fast-fashion approach to getting trendy goods from the runways of Milan and Paris” to its stores, which the magazine called “a blueprint for how to succeed in a challenging environment.” It has also been recognized by PETA as a nominee in the “Best Animal-Friendly Clothing Company” category, for which the animal rights group recognized the brand’s budget-friendly faux-leather jackets and wool-free sweaters.

The Bad

When it comes to the horrors of fast fashion, Forever 21 is often the poster brand. While retailer H&M competes with Forever 21 on price and style, it continues to excel in sustainability efforts where Forever 21 falls short.

Along with Abercrombie and Fitch, Quiksilver and Walmart, Forever 21 was called out in 2012 for fueling modern-day slavery in a report from the California nonprofit, Not for Sale. According to the report, Forever 21 was one of 300 brands linked to human rights abuses including child labor and forced labor conditions. It moved its operations to Asia in 2001 after American workers likened the fast fashion work environment to sweatshop conditions. The latest fashion offerings from Forever 21 show no sign of slowing down the fast fashion ethos: they include shirts for less than $2 and jeans under $8.

The brand was also called out by the International Labor Rights Forum for not agreeing to join a boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan factories, where alleged forced child labor takes place, reports Business Insider.

Not only does the brand not like to pay for quality, ethical materials or laborers, it reportedly takes the same approach to its designs. Forever 21 has been sued more than 50 times for reportedly stealing other designers work, but to date, the retailer has yet to lose any of the lawsuits.

It has also been sued over labor issues right here in the U.S. where many of its employees are high school or college students who were forced to work off the clock and denied meal breaks.

The Questionable

While installing solar panels is a boon to the environment, Forever 21’s move may be inspired more so by Los Angeles’ Feed-in Tariff program. According to the city’s Department of Water and Power’s website, the program will “allow the LADWP to partner with program participants to purchase, under a standard power purchase contract, energy generated from a participant’s renewable energy generating system.” In other words, Forever 21 is now also in the business of selling energy, which may be more of its motivation than the reduction in carbon emissions.

And if there’s one big questionable side to fast fashion, it is whether or not it’s helping women feel good about their clothes. At least in the short term, it seems to help some women afford trendy clothing for a small cash investment. While we shouldn’t rely on our clothing, makeup or shoes to dictate our confidence, the reality is that we still live in a world where things like certain types of clothes matter to lots of people. Most notably to prospective employers.

I recently viewed the documentary “Inequality for All” (and highly recommend it). What the movie highlights is the widening gap between the country’s top 400 income earners and the 300 million rest of us. The middle class culture that was thriving as recent as 40 years ago has begun to erode. If you’re not bringing home at least six figures per household, you’re essentially broke, likely living paycheck to paycheck. People are making less money today than they were in the 1970s (adjusted for inflation). And that means that investing in higher priced clothing with sustainability and ethical commitments isn’t always an option, even if it’s a goal.

Not buying Forever 21 (or other fast fashion options)–or at the very least, buying them secondhand–is better for the environment and our human family. But it is also important to recognize and honor that we have ongoing image issues in this country as much as we have a cash flow problem. Women don’t yet earn as much as men, and are still measured by their appearances. That doesn’t mean we should opt out entirely and wear burlap sacks. Feeling beautiful, sexy and confident are important tools in changing some of these bigger picture issues. And fast fashion is no long-term answer. It’s a Band-aid at best. But at this point, any way we can stop the bleeding of our women and girls’ insecurities is worthy of our attention. Fast fashion may be lined with poor quality, excessive waste, ethical issues and controversy, but somewhere in there we have to hope there’s also a bit of silver.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: jenciso



Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.