Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why I Don't Shop At Forever 21

Note: This has been a hard post to both write and publish. While in Dominican Republic over the summer working with Canadian volunteers, eyeing up outfits on Pinterest, or asking friends where they bought the adorable ensemble they happen to be wearing, Forever 21 seems to always be the answer. It’s hard to respond when that is what I hear—I don’t bust out a ‘don’t shop there’ speech that may come across judgmental and negative… I tend to respond with the emotionally non-descriptive ‘cool’. These are my thoughts and I hope you enjoy reading them! As always, I encourage you to make your own decisions when you choose whom to support with your hard-earned dollars!

Oh Forever 21. Your combination of trendy, absolutely adorable and cheaply priced clothing means you have dominated the cash flow from the minimum wage, part-time paycheque of most teenagers since you invaded the shopping scene. It’s these same reasons you monopolize the closets of 20-somethings to 50-somethings that find your massive quantities and varieties fitting for any occasion. While finding clothing that is both trendy and affordable can be likened to finding a needle in a haystack, I can’t bring myself to shop at your stores.

Forever 21 had been a place of confusion for me over the past year or so. As a company with owners who have strong Christian values, even having scripture references on the bottom of their shopping bags, I couldn’t help but be confused by the company’s lack of ownership to the sources of their fast-fashion clothing.

Phew, made it through a tricky, sticky, awkward statement involving faith, business, and where my concerns fit in without making any harsh statements!

Does the fact the company was created, and is run, by owners who are believers of God change the immediate issue of the company lacking transparency? No—a company owned by anyone else would still receive my un-approving reaction and choice to not support them demonstrated by no longer purchasing any of their retail goods.

What does change is, as an individual of faith myself; I find faith as the first and base reason to willingly care about supply chains, ethics, transparency, and ensuring fairness for those involved in the process of where clothing is made.

It seems like two conflicting interests rolled into one—a business with owners who do missions work, take trips to help people in crisis, invest in creating a better world, but currently do not do so with their biggest legacy and asset they created and have taken the world by storm with. On the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) page of the Forever 21 website they note the charity work they, as a company, contribute to. Forever 21 raises funds to donate to charity by selling items that are part of its ‘Love To Give, Give To Love’ collection. It is wonderful to see, and most clothing companies donate to charity. Any company that makes large sums of money will often ‘give back’ which helps make consumers feel good about using their dollars as their vote of support.

I read a 2012 interview on CNN with Do Won (Don) Chang, founder and CEO of Forever 21, for Talk Asia in which he discusses his missions work, faith and the often controversial John3:16 on the bottom of the shopping bag. He says, when it comes to the verse on the bag, 
“I want to ask you whether you have read that verse? It shows us how much God loves us. The love he gave us, by giving us his only son, Jesus, was so unbelievable to me. I hoped others would learn of God's love. So that's why I put it there.”
He goes on to state, as the family does in most interviews, that it’s a statement of personal faith and doesn’t represent the beliefs of the entire company.

When Mr. Chang was asked about his time spent travelling ‘helping out’, he mentions his work when Japan was hit with earthquakes, working in the Philippines and also time in Pakistan when there was flooding. His more in-depth answer comes when speaking on handing out corn in North Korea and states that going and visiting in person, spending time with them [the individuals in the villages in North Korea], is even more important than just donations.

And no interview with the man behind Forever 21 would be complete without referencing lawsuits on workers rights in factories that Forever 21 sources clothing from. Mr. Chang’s statement… “Regarding that problem, those are actually not my employees. Those are people who work at a company that sells products to us. With companies that we just buy and trade with, we try to check up on their working conditions and try to prevent any problems…”

The biggest shocker to me, in all my research regarding Forever 21, was the one time Mrs. Chang took the stand in a court case. Taken from Bloomberg Business Week is the following from an article titled “Forever21’s Fast (and Loose) Fashion Empire”. To give you a bit of a ‘101 lesson’ reference before the quote: The $175,400 settlement was in a court case involving garment workers who worked in sweat-shop like conditions right in LA making garments for Forever 21. To top it off, a documentary was shot about the entire situation titled “Made In LA

“Her testimony was revealing beyond her apparent ignorance of Forever 21's operations…. Lawyers had turned up documents showing that one of the company's biggest suppliers, One Clothing, is owned by Mr. Chang's private investment firm, Too Capital. It was also the supplier that reached the $175,400 settlement with the garment workers in 2004... On the witness stand, Mrs. Chang said she knew nothing about the operations of either One Clothing or Too Capital. "We simply trust the vendors, and then they manufacture the garment for us....That's about it," she said.”
To put this into more plain terms, one of Forever 21’s biggest suppliers is a company owned by Mr. Chang’s private investment firm. Trying to prevent problems can come in many forms—from transparency, traceability, factory audits and personally visiting and ensuring codes are kept. Safe to say, just ‘trusting’ a company is idealistic, but certainly not realistic in the fashion industry.

To put this all simply from the factual side, let’s take a look at Free2Work. The Forever 21 Free2Work Score Card and Apparel Industry Trends report are where I found my initial information and served as the foundation of my research.




 As we can see, Forever 21 receives an overall D- grade based on Free2Works checklist and ranking system. In the Worker Rights category they are ‘all in the red’ and even receive an overall F. Any company who wants me to purchase their clothes needs to show they are at least trying to make an effort to do something that will improve the conditions of those who create what they sell.

From a faith-based perspective, we are called to seek justice and help those who need it. I would like to see the Chang’s reach out and go to the homes of those who work in the factories both overseas and in LA that produce their clothing. I’m sure they would be shocked the very people making the clothes they sell in their mega-huge, over the top stores could more than likely be the very people they often seek out on missions trips to be with and offer help to.

Why is there disconnect?
I don’t know. 
It can’t be a lack of education— I feel as though their countless lawsuits would provide you the education you need pretty fast! 
Is it a lack of faith?-- A lack of allowing the idea of ‘practicing what you preach’ to seep into your work life? Mr. Chang has made it clear he separates religion from work in interviews. Perhaps there should be some cross over. Perhaps workers would be treated fairly and we would see a shift from trendy clothes at rock-bottom prices to trendy clothes where a few more dollars through the process means people’s lives are positively influenced. Compassion is in fashion, being a conscious consumer is the best accessory you can wear—I’m quite surprised Forever 21 hasn’t jumped on the trend yet.

If you want to read more articles on why individuals passionate about justice choose to no longer support Forever 21 with their purchasing power check out the following articles!
Awakened Aesthetic - Exposed: Forever 21 
Let's Be Fair - Let’s Trade: Forever 21 
Una Luna Mag - How To Quit Forever 21 

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