Exposed: Forever 21 - Sweatshops & Boycotts | Awakened Aesthetic

Let’s ignore the title of this article for a second, and play a little game of “guess who.”

This company bases their business almost ENTIRELY off of knock-offs. They’re fast fashion at its core, using sweatshop labor in the US, subcontracting the cheapest labor possible overseas, and stealing designs from anyone with a modicum of success.

This company also employs retail workers that are treated poorly and managers that are taught to treat them poorly. They press their religious beliefs on others, in both business meetings and on their stores’ shopping bags, but don’t actually represent the religious mores they claim to purport. They promote employees based not on their talent, but their ability to turn out cheap copies of others’ designs while claiming to be “good Christians” like the owners of this company.

Oh, and they sue bloggers who make them look bad. (Come at me.)

Sounds pretty nasty, right? I mean, this company has to be one that flies under the radar. Maybe one of those generic knock-off shoe brands, or a store that’s sort of popular, but you don’t really shop there – at least not regularly. Or maybe it’s a store we’ve already covered. You’ve already said your goodbyes to Urban Outfitters. How bad can it be?

…pretty bad, actually.

The store we’re referring to – the sweatshop-supporting, knock-off creating, religious hypocrite-promoting fashion mecca – is…

Forever 21.


At the outset, Forever 21 sounds like the American Dream come true: it was founded by a poor Korean couple who emigrated to the USA in 1981. The company is still privately-owned and operated in L.A. and the couple, Do Won “Don” Chang and Jin Sook, chalk up its success to their Christian faith and frugal, hard-working values. Those who have worked with or for the company, however, say that its success comes from a much darker place.

Sweatshop Labor

The biggest issue I have with Forever 21 is, by far, its human rights violations: Forever 21′s garments are made using sweatshop labor. And I’m not just talking about their overseas manufacturers (yes, those are sweatshops. No, they’re not paid fairly or given humane working conditions. Grab that Made in China tag and know where it comes from). Their US employees have it just as bad.

In September 2001, a number of Forever 21′s California workers sued the company for a myriad of issues, including “unpaid wages, mandatory unpaid overtime, 12- to 15-hour days, and compulsory weekend shifts” without benefits. (Radar Magazine, March 2008 edition.) Instead of making things right, Forever 21 countersued the workers (as well as the Garment Workers Center, which helped the workers file suit) for defamation, and with the defense that they shouldn’t be responsible for their manufacturing plants’ working conditions. The company was smacked down when a judge ruled that Forever 21 was in fact responsible for the poor conditions at its suppliers’ manufacturing plants. The company settled with workers (for an undisclosed amount) out of court.

These abuses are still happening, too: check out Made in LA, a documentary that proves these poor working conditions, and you’ll have trouble walking into any major store touting an LA-made label.

Copyright Infringement

As of August 2011, Forever 21 has been sued for copyright infringement over forty times. Like their claims against sweatshop abuse, the company says that their manufacturers’ copied designs are also not their fault. As Chang told the Gaurdian, “I have in the past overly trusted people and was, in turn, let down by some. Since then I have learned the difference between putting faith into people and blindly trusting them.”

For most people, that would mean stopping the copyright infringement, or at least changing suppliers. Apparently, to Chang, it means continuing to “blindly trust” people to…well, to keep making him money with copied designs, and taking the blame when he gets sued.

Christian Hypocrisy

And that’s a Christian more, right? Stealing other people’s work, using one’s fellow man to manufacture that work, and selling it for a profit while other companies (designing their own fashions instead of stealing others’) are losing money?

Oh, wait.

Apparently, “Christian” means creating designs that readers of Christianity Today consider “skimpy” and printing John 3:16 on the bottom of your shopping bags. One frustrated Christian puts it bluntly:

“The Changs’ fashions and those who wear them bring the name of Christ into disrepute, pure and simple. No complications need to be manufactured.


Need I quote chapter and verse about humility, modesty and the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit?


[...Instead of John 3:16] A motto on their bags such as “Cheap Tarts R Us” would be more appropriate.”

Forever 21′s Jin Sook, who runs everything but the finances (her husband takes care of that) chooses these garments, and also the designers who create them. According to a number of anonymous sources, the Changs regularly choose to promote “Christian, religious” designers over anyone else, and it’s been said that if you want to get on their radar you should join their church.

I’m not saying it’s religious blackmail, but I know of someone else who did.

When I first started researching Forever 21, my heart sank to find all of these stories, these quotes, these nails in my cheap clothing coffin. I kept hoping they’d have some semi-understandable excuse, like American Apparel’s “it’s not degrading; it’s sexual revolution!” mantra, or even that their bad business practices would end with religious favoritism…instead of extending to copyright infringement and human rights violations.

But Forever 21 is stealing others’ intellectual property. And more importantly, they’re debasing other human beings, both in the US and around the globe.

Forever 21 is truly a “big business” enterprise – with cut-throat politics and cut-rate manufacturing – disguised as a God-loving, fashion-forward immigration success story.

We pledge to stop buying products from Forever 21. We will no longer spend our money on unfair employment practices, US- and world-wide sweatshops, and hypocritical religious pandering.

Will you boycott Forever 21?

Further Forever 21 reading:

Image sources: one, two, three, four.

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Comments (10)

September 6, 2011 |

File under: The Corporate Connundrum

10 Responses to “Exposed: Forever 21”

  1. Hayley (@ohhaylsno ) says:

    I’ve never really bought from Forever 21 anyway. Lots of their stuff just looks tacky cheap (some lower-priced stores make stuff that looks chic, but not F21 in my book) and falls apart easily. Last year was the first I heard of them ripping off designers, so that just solidified my decisions to not shop there.

  2. Odd Jobb says:

    I have been to F21 only a couple of times, but have never bought anything. It seems like a nice store with decent cloths.
    So thanks for bringing attention about their unethical practices. I hate pushy religious people and the selling of rip-offs of hardworking designers.
    However, as for cheap labor- I’m all for it. I would rather buy clothes made by foreign nationals than by Americans (or 1st world nations). Why pay $50 for a shirt when you can get it at $15?

    I don’t know all the details for F21′s manufacturing process, but it is a good business model. Apple does it, Wal-Mart does it; to get their products made cheap so I/you/we can buy them cheap.
    That’s what the U.S. was built on- Capitalism.

    Plus, it gives jobs to people who are dirt poor, who might turn to prostitution without work.

    • I hate people says:

      Oh my gosh are you stupid? I don’t care how old is comment is; this is not an okay thing to say. Do you have any idea of what you’re talking about? Your reasoning is poor and so is your judgment. You’re a selfish bitch and can’t seem to understand why cheap labor is unacceptable. Prostitution would be better than making your stinking clothes for these people. Get out.

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  9. Joelene says:

    I shop at F21 and will continue to shop there. I have bought countless stuff and they haven’t fallen apart so far. Guess I got lucky. I also love H&M, too. H&M has totally cute clothes for such great prices. I don’t shop at UO because they never have any sales and their clothes are ugly. I rather shop at their sister stores Free People and Anthropologie anyday.

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