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The ethical closet, or why “fast fashion” is bad for your wardrobe

Categories: real style


The rise of “fast fashion” is arguably the best thing to happen to the American woman’s wardrobe in the past decade. Chains like H&M and Forever 21 have revitalized the way we dress by making chic, trendy pieces affordable again. For working women in particular — women who have both limited time and budget when it comes to shopping — fast fashion is a godsend.

Or is it?

J. Crew sweater, originally $148

December 2
Forever 21 sweater, $21.99

This week, Bloomberg Newsweek published an eye-opening behind-the-scenes look at Forever 21, currently the undisputed king (queen?) of fast fashion marketing. While I’m not a big Forever 21 shopper, I will admit that I have a few pieces in my closet, including a fabulous black bubble skirt that I picked up for $16 last summer, and a sequined cardigan that I bought specifically because it was a lower priced copy of a J. Crew sweater I was coveting. I’m a little less in love with those pieces now, though, after reading about the company’s business practices.

(You can see the full Bloomberg Businessweek story here, or Jezebel’s quick take on it here.).

Fast fashion chains have completely changed the way we shop, and with good reason. Industry insiders say that Forever 21 is doing a lot of things right — ordering only small batches of each garment, for example, which forces shoppers to buy now, before an item is gone. “They learned that what’s new has to be up front, and it has to change daily,” Ilse Metchek, founder of the California Fashion Association, told Bloomberg. “Most retailers stay with dead inventory too long. Forever 21 is all about movement in the store.” This model lets Forever 21 turn over up to 20 percent of a store’s merchandise each week — twice as much as similar retailers. And of course, there’s the price; nothing at Forever 21 retails for over $60, even the pieces that are direct copies of higher priced designer items.

skirt, $16 at Forever 21

For many women, fast fashion copies are as close as we will ever get to owning a designer item. So if the price is right and the skirt fits, what’s wrong with paying $16 for it?

Lots of things.

Also in the news this week, Miuccia Prada, head of the eponymous brand, told WWD that she wouldn’t even consider a “fast fashion” Prada line. Prada sums up, in two quick sentences, exactly what is wrong with Forever 21’s business model: “For now, what I see more or less is the bad copy,” Prada says. “Also with clothes that cost little, you need to ask why they cost so little. Because no one ever asks themselves that.”

Prada raises what are, in my mind, the most salient issues when it comes to fast fashion: cost and copyright. While H&M has partnered with designers to create cheaper versions of luxury lines, Forever 21 has been accused — repeatedly — of copying clothes from other chains and designers (including Diane Von Furstenberg and Anthropologie) — in essence, stealing the designs. At the same time, Forever 21 has been accused of wage and labor violations. That combination of money-saving strategies makes it possible for Forever 21 to offer cheap knockoffs of trendy designer items.

Like my $16 skirt.

I will admit that I do not know as much as I should about the design and labor practices of my favorite brands; I will also admit that I have bought pieces at Forever 21 knowing that they were knock offs of other brands, including brands to which I am typically very loyal (hello, faux J. Crew cardi). But I also have to admit that after reading both the Bloomberg piece about Forever 21 and Miuccia Prada’s interview with WWD, I’m a little uncomfortable about having those pieces in my closet. I’m thinking that a better practice — both in terms of the quality of my wardrobe and the ethics of my spending — will be to do my homework before I shop, not only by choosing carefully what I buy but where I buy it.

How much research do you do into the business practices of the brands you buy? Should we worry about the ethics of fast fashion, or just call a bargain a bargain?

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14 comments so far...

  • I have a book called Fashion Victim by Michelle Lee that covers this topic very well. I’ll be glad to pop it in the mail to you - just say the word!

    Julie @ The Mom Slant  |  January 28th, 2011 at 9:04 am

  • I have worried about the ethics of the cheap fashion industry. Not just knocking off other designer products, but also HOW are they able to fabricate items that cheaply? - cheap/underpaid labor, manufacturing practice that are not earth friendly, etc. I also find that the cheaper items are…well, cheaper. So, I don’t buy them. Another brand that is terrible at knocking off other designers is ModCloth. I swear half of their inventory is from Anthropologie knock-offs. Have never bought from them either. That said, I can’t say I’m not excited to at least see what H&M has to offer.

    elz  |  January 28th, 2011 at 9:41 am

  • I think H&M falls into a different category than Forever 21, largely because their business model seems to be dramatically different from F21’s. H&M partners with designers to produce inexpensive versions of high-end pieces; there is no question of intellectual property theft, for one thing, and the pieces are better made. I don’t know anything about H&M’s labor practices, but they’ve not been in and out of court in the way F21 has, which seems to indicate that they’re not totally screwing their workers.

    (I have other issues with H&M, though, and don’t shop there any more, either.)

    Susan  |  January 28th, 2011 at 9:52 am

  • Susan, I admire this article of yours. Thank you for making me ask the question “why is it that cheap” rather than I’m that smart I can get the same item for less. I also admire the fact that you used very personal examples of items from Forever 21 line and love honesty of this piece. Great Friday read - thank you!

    Maria  |  January 28th, 2011 at 10:07 am

  • while I agree with all you’ve written, I also have a problem with a store like Anthro selling t-shirts that are see-through for over $50. So, where is the happy medium?

    shannon  |  January 28th, 2011 at 10:43 am

  • Shannon, you raise a good point, and I’m not sure where the happy medium is. I suspect that stores like Anthropologie are charging more for what seems to be the same product (those thin, see-through tees for example) for two reasons: one is that they are paying their workers a better wage than F21 is (although by “better” I mean only that they are meeting the legal minimum, not that they’re offering six-figure salaries to seamstresses), and the other is that they are paying in-house designers to create pieces specifically for their lines (rather than copying other company’s designs). So while the materials may be the same at Anthro and F21, the back end work — design and manufacture — are costing more, and so the product costs more.

    And yes, there’s a point where paying what’s fair and paying $50 for a tee that you can see through become two different things, but that’s at least part of the answer.

    One of the reasons I’ve stayed loyal to the GAP for so long is that I’ve been impressed by their business model — both by their commitment to creative design and their commitment to good labor practices. In addition, their pieces are typically both affordable and well-made. GAP Inc. isn’t perfect, but they’re a company that is really getting it right most of the time.

    Susan  |  January 28th, 2011 at 11:12 am

  • I agree that the question should be asked. However, be careful, because some of the info out there is going to be tainted by some people’s politics (a la Walmart, which will never be able to do anything right until it pleases the unions first).

    If the designs are really knockoffs of big brands, why are they not being sued out of business? So I don’t worry about that. The rich companies can protect their proprietary intellectual property from a company with an actual storefront.

    I would be more interested in labor practices. However, don’t forget that some of the fancy brand-name companies have been caught with unethical labor (and environmental) practices, too.

    Fact is, it doesn’t cost anywhere near $100 to make a sweater, so you shouldn’t feel guilty paying less than that. Many of us would never pay extra just for a name brand, and I personally think that’s smart.

    I don’t shop at any of those places. I probably wouldn’t shop at Forever 21, because I’m not trying to be 21 forever.

    SKL  |  January 28th, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  • I think this is an interesting question. I understand the designers being upset about the knock offs, but I think them discussing unfair labor practices is a slippery slope. I hope Oscar de la Renta is paying his seamstresses a fair wage. Does Donna Karan check out all of her factories, even for her lower priced merchandise? I don’t really know, but I can’t afford either so I am not that concerned. There are designers that are designing for a very small and specific market. They know that a middle class, stay at home mom in California is not their clientele. Now if I can find a nice skirt that looks like or mimics Oscar’s at Banana Republic or Talbot’s, I might purchase it, because that is a close as I will get to ever owning it. (He knows that too.) If it something fleeting, like the sequins in your example, I am not going to even head to Talbot’s and go where it is affordable fashion, like Forever 21. That is, in my opinion, what fashion is, fleeting and fun. I will spend as much as I can on quality pieces, but no business is perfect in their business practices. One has to decide how deep they want to go and what they are willing to accept in business practices. My guess is that I if I looked hard enough I would find a problem with every favorite retailer/designer.

    There are not that many retailers who don’t knock off someone. There are items at Nordstrom that knock off couture, there are items at J. Crew that knocks off Brooks Brothers and big designers, there are items at Target that knock off Anthropologie. Now if the design is a true original, then there may be a case made, but what percentage of clothes can we say is truly original? No one holds the patent on bubble skirts or double breasted trenches. You mentioned direct knock offs and that is where I am in the gray area. I can honestly say, I don’t know. How is that for a long winded non-answer? ;o)

    Thanks for the food for thought. Wow, I got to use my brain today!

    Allyson  |  January 28th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

  • I don’t know. I don’t agree with their labor practices, at all.
    But for those of us who can’t afford $100 for a sweater, Forever 21 is another place to get pieces that we can work into our wardrobe.
    It sucks that they’re stealing other’s designs, but they’re not taking customers away from these big designers, are they? I mean, the people who shop at Forever 21 typically can’t afford the higher prices brands, right? I mean, you’re not going to stop shopping at J Crew just because you have a sweater from Forever 21 that looks similiar, are you?

    Cori  |  January 28th, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  • What about the public policy and social welfare issues associated with the highway robbery prices charged by certain labels? I realize that at times, consumers are paying for handmade goods, which obviously are more expensive and time consuming to design and produce, but I find it hard to believe that several hundred dollars (even when factoring in research and development, labor, manufacturing, distribution, management, and branding costs) goes into each and every garment/handbag/shoe.

    Forever 21, et al, merely copies the trends, not the labeling. On no Forever 21 garment will you ever see copies of designer logos or branding. If you put your Forever 21 sweater up next to its J. Crew counterpart, you would undoubtedly see a difference in quality. Forever 21 pieces are not intended to be something you could pass along to your daughter one day. Forever 21 garments only last for a season or two, and then are either 1) massively out of style, and/or 2) misshapen, threadbare, discolored, etc. You pay for what you get, and Forever 21 customers know this.

    Don’t get me wrong…I love high end fashion, and am willing to splurge every now and then. I am an owner of several real Louis Vuitton bags, and am currently courting the idea of a Louboutin purchase in the near future. When I want to purchase a quality “investment” item, I understand that I will expect to pay “investment” prices. But if I just want to try a pair of jeggings (whose fifteen minutes of fame are probably about up), I am more inclined to purchase the $15 Forever 21 variety over shelling out several hundred dollars for a designer “quality made” pair. If I couldn’t find a cheap pair of jeggings, I wouldn’t elect to indulge in such a ridiculous trend. Period. In a way, one could argue that low priced fashion “knock offs” of trends helps high end trends stay relevant for longer periods of time.

    While I do respect this article for shedding light on fashion industry issues, there are two sides to every story.

    Amy  |  January 28th, 2011 at 3:47 pm

  • I was thinking about the fast fashion issue and the ‘cheap, easy, fun, throwaway’ aspect of much of American women’s dressing. To my mind, the French don’t think this way, nor do some other countries. They buy less, buy investment, mend and take care and perhaps pass on to a lucky daughter! Food for thought…

    StacyfrPgh  |  January 28th, 2011 at 4:09 pm

  • It makes me think about the difference between F21, or H&M, and a company like Allen B. Schwartz (A.B.S.)

    t’s a company well-known for creating inexpensive ($300-ish) of popular dresses worn at the Oscars (and maybe other red carpet events). The idea is that regular people - and by regular, I mean people who aren’t commissioning tens of thousands of dollars for a couture dress - could look like a movie star by buying what it essentially a cheap knock off.

    I guess the difference is that J. Crew and Anthropologie target exactly the same customers as F21 and H&M. I’m not sure Prada or DVF do, though.

    But the ethical piece of it - copying someone else’s work, reinterpreting it, and making a buck - makes me wonder if I should be a little more discerning about my clothing choices.

    Sarah  |  January 30th, 2011 at 6:44 pm

  • There have been many valid points so far in the comments, i.e.:
    - copyright not being as defined in the clothing world hence no one’s suing anyone
    - niche markets, whether high-end or low-end, are really not in danger of being stolen from anyone

    As for the labour practices, I will say this as someone who was born, raised and lived (for the most part of my life so far) in a third world country, ’sweatshops’ are not necessarily a bad thing. For many of the people living in those places, the factories are probably the most decent workplaces they will ever find where most of them require a certain skill level and where workers definitely get paid heaps more than any other place available out there (including options like prostitution, foraging for garbage to make money, etc.).

    I cannot comment on the macroeconomic impact of this issue as a whole, but certainly on a micro level there are many benefits that these so-called questionable labour practices give to the poorer communities and families where they run. We only think of them as cheap labour relative to the salaries we are used to in our own society.

    So for me, I base my shopping on a combination of personal factors like budget, utility, beauty, etc, and try not to think too much of social implications. When the GFC hit Australia in the past year(s), I even heard a financial adviser on the radio say that you should still buy according to your own personal circumstances, and not worry too much about whether it’s helping then (local) economy or not.

    I think if you are smart about your wardrobe, whether you are building it up or just adding to it, you’ll find that you’ll be buying a combination of cheap things and high-end classics. After a while, experience will tell you whether it’s best to invest in the more expensive branded item, or if you can live with the cheap stuff for now and use your money for more important things.

    Trish Cardona  |  January 30th, 2011 at 8:12 pm

  • I’ve recently become more aware of what I’m buying and where it comes from. I have long refused to shop at Walmart and am now not shopping at Forever21, not because of their ‘knock-offs’ but because of labor/human rights concerns. At the end of the day, it’s a business and they’re going to do what is right for the bottom line. It’s up to the consumer to demand fair actions and the strongest way to do that is by supporting brands/companies that you know to be ethical. Money talks so spend it wisely.


    A  |  March 12th, 2011 at 5:51 pm