The High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I’m ashamed to admit that despite my long-standing qualms, it took reading this Los Angeles Times expose by Natalie Kitroeff and Victoria Kim to get me to finally swear off “fast fashion” — cheap, poorly manufactured clothing that is often made under the worst possible working conditions, and often infringes on copyrights.

(I’m even more ashamed to admit that as I write this, I’m wearing a dress I paid $3 for on clearance at The Rainbow Shop, and shoes I paid $15 on clearance at Target.)

Often when we think of sweatshops, we think of those in other countries, where labor regulations are more lenient or non-existent. But Kitroeff and Kim report on sweatshops right here in the United States, specifically in Los Angeles — factories that exploit mostly undocumented workers, paying them less than minimum wage to work in slave-like conditions. They also point out the loop-holes protecting retailers that use these sweatshops for their house brands — stores like Forever 21, TJ Maxx, and Marshall’s.

Sewing factories and wholesale manufacturers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle those workers’ claims. Forever 21 has not had to pay a cent.

Like other major clothing retailers, Forever 21 avoids paying factory workers’ wage claims through a tangled labyrinth of middlemen that stands between the racks in its stores and the people who sew the clothes.

The company benefits from an 18-year-old state law that was originally intended to stamp out sweatshops but has come up short. The law allowed workers to recoup back wages from their factory boss, and any garment manufacturing company that does business with that person. Forever 21 says it is a retailer, not a manufacturer, and thus is always at least one step removed from Los Angeles factories.

One paradox of that arm’s-length relationship: Forever 21 says it often inspects factories abroad that produce its clothes as part of its “social responsibility to better protect workers,” but it doesn’t do that in Los Angeles. The company said it takes that approach because in California the Department of Labor enforces strict worker protections, whereas there’s no government body that does that for overseas factories.

Now, as retailers across the country face increasingly tough competition from e-commerce, budget brands like Forever 21 are putting more and more pressure on suppliers to keep prices low.

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