Forever 21 popularized the idea of fast fashion. Shein revolutionized it. And now, the two are working together to create an ethical monster.
As of August 2023, the two companies have entered into a new partnership that allows both businesses to gain significant stakes in the other’s companies, allowing them to benefit from each other: SPARC (Forever 21’s parent company) will now be able to sell Forever 21 clothing on Shein.com, and Shein will now be able to sell their items in Forever 21 stores. But what exactly does this mean for the state of fashion, and how will this impact its future?
Forever 21 was one of the pioneers of the fast fashion trend alongside stores like Zara and H&M in the early 90s. These stores became successful very quickly due to their ability to produce affordable, trendy clothing in a very short time frame. Traditional department stores would typically release two seasons a year: spring/summer, and fall/winter. But stores like Forever 21 are able to have as many as 52 mini-seasons. Essentially, they are coming out with new collections every week, which they can do by using low-cost (and low-quality) materials, as well as a sped-up production timeline. This catapulted the brand into fame, with an annual revenue of over $4 billion at its peak. The brand eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019 and was sold to SPARC, who made the deal with Shein.
While Forever 21’s business model was successful for years, malls have recently started to die out in favor of online shopping. When it comes to online shopping, Shein is a force to be reckoned with. Shein started as an online wedding dress store in 2008 before pivoting to women’s fashion in 2012. It began to gain popularity in 2020 when the world was quarantined and the only way to shop for clothes was to do it online. “Shein hauls” became wildly popular on social media, where people could buy tens or even hundreds of items for an extremely low price — accessories for as little as a dollar and a pair of jeans for less than $20. Compared to Forever 21, which could have 52 seasons a year, Shein is uploading as many as 6,000 items per day on their website. They have clothing for all different types of occasions and styles at an affordable price which may seem too good to be true, and that’s because it is.
Shein has faced massive amounts of criticism in recent years for their unethical and even illegal labor practices. They have been accused of using forced labor, with reports of their workers making only pennies per garment and being subjected to up to a two-thirds reduction in daily wages if they make a single mistake. There are reports of their employees working shifts as long as 75 hours, often working for months on end without a single day off. They have also been accused of blatantly stealing designs from smaller designers who often do not have the funds to legally challenge them, made even harder by the fact that clothing designs cannot be copyrighted.
Not only are Shein’s workers being harmed in the process, but the planet as a whole is as well. The vast majority of Shein’s clothing is made out of polyester. Polyester (AKA plastic) clothing generally only lasts for a few wears, where it is then thrown into landfills to decompose over millions of years. And because fast fashion encourages people to continuously update their wardrobe to follow the newest microtrends, Shein is responsible for emitting more than 6 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is equivalent to the yearly emissions of 1.3 million gas-powered cars.
Forever 21 is not immune to criticism either. They have been sued countless times for offenses such as refusing to pay their in-store workers, paying garment sewers as little as 12 cents for a nearly $14 item, and pirating software such as Photoshop and InDesign from Adobe. For more details on the reasons many have chosen to boycott Forever 21, check out this Her Campus article from 2015 that, albeit old, is still relevant today as their practices have not changed over the last eight years.
This partnership combines two of the largest names in fast fashion, which will inevitably result in more clothes ending up in landfills, and more workers being subject to abhorrent pay and working conditions in order to make these clothes. While Shein’s business model is appealing from a business standpoint, it should absolutely not be copied if we want any chance of an equitable world in terms of both the environment and workers’ rights. There will never be an ethical way to produce fast fashion; it is only possible via cheap labor and unsustainable materials, as the costs need to be cut somewhere, and that cut is certainly not coming from shareholders’ pockets. While this deal may seem exciting to those who love to follow current trends by buying lots of cheap clothing items at a high frequency, it is important to remember that your money does talk. Make sure its statement is a positive one.