Friday, March 25, 2011

Fast is not fab

I think we can all agree that sweatshops are bad. Working people long hard hours while paying them little and forcing them to work in uncomfortable conditions is deplorable. How lucky are we that we live in the United States where we don't have to deal with this issue, right? Wrong. Today, in continuation of my retail series, I'll be talking about Forever21, the 'fast fashion' giant that has garnered criticism of the treatment of its workers.

The garment production industry is big business in California. Forever21 has been accused of (and documented through interviews with employees) running sweatshops in the state. According to 39th & Broadway, Forever21 employs Mexican immigrant labor because it is cheap. With this comes the sub par conditions in which they are working: no running water, no bathroom, rats, and cockroaches. Apparently paying them very little and abusing their workforce in the United States is not even, oh no. Forever21 employs millions of employees around the world, like India, where the labor is even cheaper and the ethical violations even greater.

As we all know, Forever21 constantly updates its offerings; in the world of 'fast fashion', you've got to be the quickest, with the newest, shiniest thing, and Forever21 certainly delivers. The result of this is their workforce is forced to work overtime, unpaid! Workers may even have to take work home, again, unpaid! Forever21 is the bad guy here, but the store is really a symptom of a greater problem: our insatiable appetite for new things fast.

Like many retailers, Forever21 can certainly afford to pay their workers better and provide more comfortable working conditions, but as is always with corporate greed, the goal is to minimize spending, which starts at the bottom: the workers. The pyramid below illustrates this well.

Again, unionizing is very important and the documentary Made in L.A. follows three women who fought for years to get Forever21 to change their labor practices. Has anything changed? Forever21 would like to say yes but there is still a long way to go. Change is not going to come out of the goodness of their heart as it is a business, it has no heart. Change has to be demanded and I choose to not shop there until significant progress is made.

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