Forever 21 has long been the epitome of fast fashion’s evils: The company preferred to steal styles and settle the resulting lawsuits rather than dream up new ones itself. It was investigated for sweatshop labor in Los Angeles and accused of exploiting high school retail workers. And in recent years, as cheap and trendy rivals H&M and Zara have worked to align themselves with sustainability and tighter labor standards, Forever 21 mostly did nothing.
Now the company is filing for bankruptcy and closing most of its stores in Asia and Europe, leaving us to wonder which of their missteps finally took it down. Overexpansion in foreign markets is one idea. Others have posited that Forever 21’s decline might be a sign of fast fashion’s fading empire. Perhaps it’s another indicator in the decline of malls, but fast fashion itself sure isn’t going anywhere. Clothes are still just as cheap, and we’re buying as many of them as ever. We’re just doing it in different places—at nimble online-only companies, like Fashion Nova and Boohoo, which are growing.
America’s obsession with fast fashion first took off in the 1990s: Total consumption of clothing doubled between 1991 and 2005, thanks to a combination of offshoring, China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, and the end of textile and apparel import quotas. Barring the Great Recession, we have consumed over 20 billion garments in almost every year since 2005.
Perhaps it looks like progress that American clothing consumption is stable, rather than escalating, but it’s important to remember how extreme our shopping habits truly are. It’s estimated that 100 billion garments are produced globally each year, which means that at just 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans buy up as much as one-fifth of the world’s clothes. That also means we are also responsible for one-fifth of fashion’s notorious environmental impacts—including its carbon footprint, which rivals international air travel and agriculture. Plus, we wear our clothes for a quarter as long as the global average, marking ours as the most wasteful fashion habits in the world.
So where are Americans buying this stuff if not Forever 21? Online, but also from discount chains. Many of us (especially older shoppers) were never lured into the trend treadmill and prefer the world of off-price shopping instead. Of the top 10 apparel retailers in the U.S., three are discounters (none are fast fashion chains): TJ Maxx is the largest apparel retailer in the country—and it’s doing great. Ross Dress for Less, at No. 9, is opening 100 brick-and-mortar stores in 2019. If Amazon and Walmart were pure apparel retailers, they would take the top two spots.
Forever 21 has mostly chosen to ignore its labor problems. That seems to be a trend—working conditions across the clothing industry are not getting much better. In 2016, the U.S. Labor Department investigated L.A.’s factories and found that huge brands, including TJ Maxx, Forever 21, and Fashion Nova were setting their prices paid to factories so low that it led to sweatshop wages. Not much has changed in the years since: The Garment Worker Center, which once targeted Forever 21 for sweatshop abuses, is now campaigning against Ross Dress for Less, which it alleges owes Los Angeles garment workers $800,000 in back wages. Today, Los Angeles factory workers are still being paid only $5 an hour to overproduce, write GWC organizers via email. “A much more sustainable model would be to pay all workers fairly and produce less but higher quality.” To their point, the average retail price of clothes has not gone up much in recent years.
At the same time, the rise of sustainable and ethical shopping is a very real phenomenon. And brands that use more sustainable materials and boast better labor standards, like Everlane and Reformation, have benefited from fast fashion’s bad reputation. Still, retail in America is not a zero-sum game: Fast fashion can survive and ethical shopping can continue to grow, too, which is probably what’s happening. The food movement is a case in point: Yes, there are apple slices in Happy Meals now, but in general the industrial food industry remains intact and growing while Whole Foods and farm-to-table restaurants also proliferate. Ethical food consumption has just expanded the pie, not chased away the bad apples. It’s the same with clothing.
The fact that we sort of think disposable fashion is over indicates that we have entered a new phase of our consumer culture I like to call stealth consumerism, or faux minimalism, the phase in which we no longer register or perceive how much we buy. That makes sense: Amazon has made it possible to order everything from a paper shredder to a puffer jacket to a replacement cord for your iPhone in a few seconds. We didn’t stop shopping—far from it. Consumption just runs quietly and unnoticed on autopilot in the privacy of our homes and in the background of our lives now.
People now like to identify as minimalists rather than consumers (there’s a whole cottage industry of books, blogs, and movies about living with less). We like to say we are into experiences, not stuff, and that conscious consumption is the new normal. But our disposable clothing culture is alive and well. It’s always on and always running. It’s just become a non-event.