Forever21 continues to invest in fast fashion, with its recent announcement that it will launch 40 more of its F21 Red stores, known for even cheaper fashions. The chain, which currently has eight locations across the country, first launched in 2014 as a lower-priced, more family-friendly retailer than Forever 21’s regular stores, selling a wider assortment from its sub-brands like Forever 21 Men, Forever 21 Plus and Forever 21 Girls. According to the press release, prices will range from $1.90 for camisoles to $7.90 for denim.
Given that McKinsey’s latest State of Fashion report found one of today’s largest industry challenges to be “intensifying business pressures to produce more for less—less time, less money and less effort,” it’s not a totally surprising move. But it’s also a bold move, with negative ethical and environmental implications at a time when many similar companies — like H&M, with its goal to be climate-positive by 2040 — are trying to shake off such associations.
“Consumer citizens are getting the short end of the deal. A generation is being sold on the concept that low-quality products are desirable,” said Maxine Bedat, the co-founder of the eco-friendly brand and e-commerce platform Zady. “Being on an endless rat race of ‘fashion’ instead of style isn’t doing anything for [shoppers’] confidence, and it’s having an enormous impact on our planet and the people making those clothes.”
Indeed, Forever 21 has been embroiled in various Department of Labor investigations since 2001, with many of the company’s Los Angeles-based suppliers coming under fire for mistreating and under-paying their workers. When the first case was settled in 2004, Forever 21 committed to improving these poor conditions, but problems have arisen as recently as last year, when another suit was brought forth accusing the company of paying workers a measly $4.50 an hour.
An F21 Red store in Phoenix, Arizona
Unsurprisingly, it is also the only fast-fashion company that hasn’t signed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Safety, the independent, legally binding commitment to enforcing a safer Bangladeshi garment industry that was put in place in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza building collapse.
Its relationship to the environment also leaves something to be desired. According to Good On You, which does extensive research into the sustainability efforts of brands in order to help consumers “shop their values,” Forever 21 has the shortest environmental policy amongst its competitors. “It lacks an overarching commitment to reduce the company’s environmental impact,” it notes, stating that Forever 21 instead relies on small initiatives like installing LED lights in stores and recycling all shipment boxes.
Given fast-fashion’s popularity — it accounted for $6 billion of U.S. apparel sales in 2015, per Euromonitor’s latest report — consumers seem somewhat split on how much these setbacks matter. However, recent data from youth research firm Ypulse found that 42 percent of shoppers ages 13-34 are more likely to buy a product that is described as eco-friendly.
“For people with very limited disposable income, price trumps eco-friendliness,” said Rachel Krautkremer, an insights and strategy director at Cassandra. “It’s not that they don’t care about the environmental impact of fast fashion, they just care more about looking stylish without going broke.”
Julie Zerbo, the founder of The Fashion Law and a staunch critic of fast fashion, believes there are more pertinent ways to use the money going toward this store expansion. “I would like to see them devoting resources to cleaning up their supply chains — not just in terms of sustainability, but [also by] ensuring that their suppliers are observing basic human rights tenants and enforcing codes of conduct,” she said.
Bedat agreed, arguing that Forever 21 should focus instead on making clothes that are not disposable. “We don’t need, and the planet can’t afford, to have 150 billion pieces of new clothing produced a year,” she said. “Help women and girls find clothing that [will] make them feel great about themselves. Don’t just push a product to make a penny.”
If there’s any good news here, it’s how it reflects on the health of the larger retail market. As Zerbo pointed out, “It adds an interesting element to the overarching narrative that U.S. retailers are closing all of their stores, which obviously is not the case.”
That narrative is “a generic overstatement,” said Paula Rosenblum, an analyst at RSR Research. She added that, “Many of the store closings and bankruptcies we’ve seen are in moderate-priced apparel retailers.”
Lower-priced retailers like Forever 21, on the other hand, appear to be thriving and continuing to dominate the market, despite the adverse effects of their business model. If consumers are concerned, they aren’t showing it with their wallets.