The Retail Apocalypse

As Amazon becomes one of the world’s leading commerce companies, the state of several fan-favorite retail stores have become obsolete. One by one, American retailers are setting up their “going out of business” sales and declaring bankruptcy. The most prominent example of this can be seen in the very notorious bankrupcy  of Forever 21— a once multi-billion dollar company whose consumers donned the flashy yellow bag left to right. Now, their clothes are selling at $5 as part of an effort to rid themselves of their millions of dollars of debt. But what caused this domino effect of stores closing? The answer is simple (well, not totally): technology. Stores that we begged our parents to go to as children, like ToysRus and Aéropostale, are struggling to keep up with recent consumer tastes and the economy’s shift towards remote, mobile shopping. 

Regardless of whether or not you’ve shopped at Sears or Gap, it’s clear to see the way society has become digitally based. It stems down to what the media has dubbed the "retail apocalypse" — a narrative that points the finger at the internet for killing both mom-and-pop and corporate stores. In addition to Amazon, and the ever-loving Prime membership that over 100 million Americans possess, shoppers have started to buy their clothes either on wholesale websites or online-only retail stores, both of which are largely based in China. Prime examples of this include Romwe, Shein, and FashionNova. Stores like these have amassed cult followings either due to their low prices, high variability, or just social media presence. A-list celebrities like Cardi B and Kylie Jenner endorse FashionNova clothes on their Instagrams and shy away from the once desirable Sears or JCPenney collaborations. Customers don’t have to worry about struggling to find their size in a store or deal with the tedious waits and long fitting room lines.

All this being said though, is the shift toward this kind of shopping worth it? In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about fast fashion and the sustainability of clothes. Journalist Dana Thomas provides a great definition of fast fashion: “cheap, disposable clothing, made indiscriminately, imprudently, and often without consideration for environmental and labor conditions by companies like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Nasty Gal, and Fashion Nova”. This definition is inclusive of both store-front and online stores and, as inhumane as it may be, is implemented by almost every other apparel store in the country. In fact, I can say that I’ve succumbed to the disaster that is fast fashion because, in reality, who hasn’t? The clothes are designed to be trendy and, frankly speaking, as a “broke” college student, it’s quite difficult to pay more than $20 on an article of clothing. But, at the same time, it’s also difficult to know that you’re complicit in a company that pays pennies to their workers— a situation that is the ultimate snapshot of wealth disparity in today’s world. You can say that you’re not one to blame because you’re just one person and the workers live on the other side of the world, but that sort of mindset is exactly what’s flawed with the system. Think about it this way: supporting this behavior is comparable to supporting a restaurant where the chefs are held captive and paid 20 cents an hour under extremely strenuous working conditions. The only difference is that one good is meant to be eaten and the other worn.

As much as I want to not partake in this kind of system, it’s very difficult to do so. “Sustainable” clothing for many people means thrift stores but in many cases, a lot of those clothes came from the exact stores berated above. And what happens if a person simply cannot afford to buy non-fast fashion? If we say people of lower-income ought to purchase sustainable clothing and ought implies can, can they really? Should people who come from lower-income backgrounds be put under the same pressure as those with more purchasing power? So we now raise the question: what should we do in response to fast fashion? Well, if we can’t refrain ourselves from not purchasing it, the least we can do is to aid these workers in underdeveloped countries and raise awareness towards companies who exploit their laborers. We have the ability now more than ever to make a change and promote a better life for those with less moral luck.