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The Truth about Fast Fashion and Forever 21

What is your personal criteria for buying clothing? Trend? Material? Fit? Do you think about how long you want your new shirt to last? Do you think about the company you’re buying it from? Do you think about the people who made your shirt? In the “I-want-it-now” and “I-want-it-all” era of Amazon (um yes please two hour delivery) and fast fashion giants like Forever 21, it’s easy to impulse shop. And with fast fashion, a new, trendy shirt can be as cheap as $8 and look practically identical to items straight off the runway.

In fact, in as little as two weeks (maybe even less!) a company can see an item on the runway, create a pattern for it, sew it, and have it in your local Forever 21, ready to buy at absurdly cheap prices. It’s impressive and, I know, hard to resist. But what’s going into your $10.90 shirt?

Let’s talk about the hidden costs of buying cheap fast fashion.

PART ONE: Who made my shirt?

In the United States… Did you know that almost 300 workers since 2007 have filed claims against Forever 21 citing underpayment in the U.S.? According to this LA Times article from 2017, one woman says she was illegally paid only $6 an hour to work in Los Angeles pinning Forever 21 shirts. And this is not a unique case. The US Department of Labor reported that factory workers in Los Angeles are paid as little as $4 an hour to sew clothing from companies like, and including, Forever 21. In 2017, in the United States, how does Forever 21 get away with this?

Well, legally, it’s just not their problem.

As a retailer, not a manufacturer, it is up to the manufacturing company, and NOT Forever 21, to pay factory workers. So why aren’t manufacturing companies paying more?

Retailers are forcing costs to be so low (they have to profit off that crazy-cheap shirt you just bought, remember!) that manufacturers even in the United States are often pressured to break federal laws in order to work with the retail giants that can keep them in the green.

As it turns out, Forever 21 would have to pay 50% more to sewing contractors in the U.S. in order to reach federal minimum wage for workers. And let’s not forget, this cost would have to come from somewhere — us, the consumers.

General views of a clothing factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka which manufactures goods for export to western markets. Pictured workers sew garments in the busy factory.

Around the globe… Outside of the U.S., and especially in third world countries where livable wages are much lower, manufacturing costs are much cheaper. Let’s take an example from Andrew Brooks, author of “Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes.”

According to Brooks, “the total manufacturing costs of making a denim shirt in the USA were calculated at $13.33, compared to $3.75 in Bangladesh.”

In Bangladesh, the hourly wage of garment workers is, on average, $0.24 an hour.

The average cost of a bottled water in Bangladesh is $0.17.

So the poor garment workers making your fast fashion shirt are making….. slightly over 1 water bottle an hour? Obviously, this is not even close to a livable wage.

The solution

I’m sure you’re thinking, “well if you’re getting paid stupidly low wages, why work there?”

But the answer is complex, and this unlivable wage often ends up being the best a garment worker can get.

According to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of “Cheap,” workers are often migrants from rural areas without formal employment contracts. This allows them to be easily exploited and abused by the manufacturers that hired them. Garment workers are generally concentrated into some of the poorest nations on earth, and have little to no ability to stand up to fast-fashion factories. If the cost of labor increases in one area, factories will move elsewhere, where labor remains cheaper, and will continue to exploit poor workers.

And as labor expert Robert Ross of Clark University told Business Insider, “Nobody in the world is making a living if a retailer is selling $10 jeans.”

PART TWO: Who designed my shirt?

Poor workers aren’t the only ones that the rock-bottom Forever 21 prices are screwing over, either. Whether you’re a small time artist, designer, or hell–even Rihanna–you may be at risk.

Few designers have sued Forever 21 competitors such as H&M and Zara, who have “non-precise” copying methods in their design process, taking ideas from current trends, but not usually copying them stitch for stitch.

Forever 21, however, has been called out for their controversial “close-copying” methods and brought to court by Gucci, Puma, Adidas, Anna Sui, Diane von Fustenberg, and Trovata, among others, and not to mention the smaller companies and indie brands who cannot afford a team of lawyers to get their compensation.

By saving money by stealing designs from small and large designers alike, Forever 21 shows a blatant lack of respect towards artists and independent designers. After being called out (and sued) repeatedly, Forever 21 seems to have no change in design methods.

Left, from indie brand Sporty and Rich. Right, in Forever 21.

PART THREE: Why you shouldn’t by your fifth pair of $10 jeans

Despite these unethical practices of companies such as Forever 21, it can be difficult as a consumer to avoid the rush of being able to stock up on cheap, trendy buys and fill your closet to the brim with things you may not actually need.

Remember: when it comes down to it, buying these cheap fashions is using your hard-earned money to support sweatshops and unethical company behaviors.

Need a final push to put your Forever 21 days to rest?

Did you know that the typical F21 garment is designed to last for only 6 washes?

Let’s just hope you don’t get your hands dirty.


(MAY 9, 2018 EDIT: Looking for some ethical retailers or trying to participate in more thoughtfully curated fashion? Here are my top picks.)

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