Soapbox: Let’s Talk About Forever 21 — And Every Other Effed Up Retailer

For the past week or so, there’s been comments going back in forth in our “What Are We Wearing Today” posts about the shady nature of Forever 21. Not only has Forever 21 been cited for its poor ethics in terms of stealing independent designers’ work, but it’s also been called out for its conservative values as a corporation. Yesterday, Kate addressed her personal perspective on how she feels about wearing Forever 21. As she noted, she wasn’t aware of the company’s reputation, and now that she is, she says, “I’m less inclined to give them my business in the future. But you will still see lots of F21 items in this column because, even though I’ll shop there less from now on, I’m not about to get rid of the things that are already in my closet.”

The ethics of fashion are a murky business. And Forever 21 is hardly the only company that’s guilty. Now that we’ve opened the Pandora’s Box…In recent months, I’ve tried to address some of the sweatshop labor violations that companies like H&M and Zara have had lobbed against them. H&M, Zara — and yes, Forever 21 — are able to keep the cost of their products low in large part because they employ sweatshop labor.

What is a sweatshop? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a sweatshop is “any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental U.S. labor laws, which include paying a minimum wage and keeping a time card, paying overtime, and paying on time.” The U.S. Industrial Revolution was built largely on sweatshop labor, but these days they exist mostly overseas in developing countries, and are largely unregulated or under-regulated. Don’t believe me? Check out all of these cases. Sweatshops are typically bastions of sexual abuse and harassment, child labor and abuse, poor working conditions and slave-like arrangements in which workers have little or no mobility and are working under duress.

Oftentimes, sweatshop abuses go unreported or under-reported because local authorities work in collusion with factory owners to keep scandals out of the news. And in many poor and underdeveloped areas, these factories are seen as better than nothing. Which is why, for instance, in 2007, the Gap was found guilty of using child laborers as young as eight to produce garments in one of its Indian factories. Children were sold by their parents to sweatshop owners in order to help support poor families, and then worked for more than 14 hours a day without pay. The Gap, of course, claimed it was unaware of the subcontracting, and said it pulled more than 10,000 garments from its supply chain that were allegedly produced at that factory. But again, this all happened after the Gap signed a pledge in 2000 stating that no child labor would be used in the making of its clothes. So, that didn’t work out so well.

But okay, if you don’t want to talk about sweatshops, then we can instead look at a different aspect of production, like textile manufacturing. Cotton accounts for around 50 percent of all textiles we use, and traditional cotton production requires around 55 million pounds of pesticides annually. (See also: Monsanto.) These chemicals have a hugely negative impact on the environment — and on the health and lives of the workers who tend to and harvest cotton crops. Prolonged exposure to the pesticides used on conventional cottons can result in birth defects, longterm memory loss, paralysis and death. And the environmental damage is monumental: one to two million birds are killed annually thanks to one of the pesticides sprayed on conventional cotton, while chemicals used in cotton growth contaminate ground water and cause eco-system imbalance.

And supposing we ignore both textile harvesting and clothing manufacturing and look at the politics of these corporations. As mentioned, Forever 21 has a history of supporting conservative causes. But you know who else does? Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, whose owner/founder, Richard Hayne, is a fervent fiscal supporter of hardcore conservative Rick Santorum. And speaking of big businesses that have thrown money at anti-gay politicians and causes, what about Target? There’s always Walmart, too. And let’s not forget about all the sexual harassment cases against American Apparel founder Dov Charney.

So where does that leave us?

If you’re walking away with the message that the mass clothing industry is generally a nasty place with little transparency and accountability, well then, you’re right. It is. It’s also an industry that constantly feeds us the message that we need more and more stuff. One of everything in every color and shape. And I’ll admit that I’m guilty of both helping to create that image and buying into it at the same time. Why? Because fashion is fun. It’s inspirational and it’s aspirational. In its best moments, beautiful clothing can be uplifting and revelatory and completely wonderful. But as a consumer, it’s also worth a bit of reflection. Do we need as much as we have? Do we need as much as we want? And are we as considerate about what we purchase and put in our closets as we should be? Probably not.

So what can you do?

  • Think About Where Your Stuff Comes From. If something is really inexpensive, no matter the retailer, there’s probably a good (bad) reason for it. That’s not to accuse every retailer everywhere of sweatshop abuses or poor labor practices, but it is to say that, by and large, you get what you pay for. Of course, you’re not going to want to spend a zillion dollars on every tank top you buy, but understand that with fast fashion — sweatshop labor or no — you are typically dealing with a disposable commodity, and the goods you’re purchasing probably aren’t going to last long. So think about whether you want to spend $10 on a tank now that you’ll have to replace in six months, or $30 on a tank that you’ll have for at least two years.
  • Demand Transparency and Accountability From Major Retailers. Social Accountability International offers a voluntary certification program in corporate transparency. Organizations like the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, and, allow consumers to educate themselves and lobby on behalf of labor rights issues. Consumers can also contact the U.S. Department of Labor and let them know you want mandated transparency for large retailers.
  • Prove Your Politics With Your Wallet. If you are opposed to something that a particular retailer has done, don’t shop there. It’s as simple as that. If enough people do this, a retailer will be forced to change their ways. Is that overly simplistic and idealistic? Yes. It also makes total sense.
  • Buy Secondhand and Thrift. Get Creative and Crafty With Your Clothes. You want new stuff—of course you do. So why not buy thrifted clothes, vintage clothes or awesome otherwise used garments? Have clothing swaps with your friends. Rework pieces you’ve already got with a sewing machine, or at the hands of an inexpensive tailor. Being ethical does not mean going without.
  • Buy Handmade. Buy Local. Buy FairTrade. Buy Organic. If you buy less stuff, you can afford to spend more money on special items when you do buy something new. Sure, maybe your closet won’t be overflowing with 17 V-necks from American Apparel, but you will also have a gorgeous new one-of-a-kind dress or blouse that nobody else has.
  • Talk to Your Friends About What They’re Doing, But Don’t Judge. We’re all in this together, guys.

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