Not So Fast: The Unglamorous Side of Fast-Fashion

Before you buy that $5 sweatshirt, think again. The carbon footprint of fast-fashion retailers, such as Forever21, has a much higher price tag than $5.

Forever21, a Los-Angeles based player in the retail industry, generates over $4 billion a year [1] selling a wide range of inexpensive, fashion-forward apparel and accessories. It operates a “fast-fashion” business model, which involves churning out a clothing item from raw material to finished good within an extremely tight turnaround time – retailers such as Forever21 receive shipments of new clothing styles daily [2]. The model of “fast-fashion” comprises of a) constant up-to-date trends in products and b) selling large volumes of products priced significantly below that of a comparable product from a “higher-end” brand. This business phenomenon, which took off over the past decade, has revamped the apparel retail landscape; overall retail prices have increased over the past 10 years, yet clothing prices have decreased [2].


Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

As new products are pumped out into Forever21 storefronts daily, customers are shopping more often than they have ever before. According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Americans purchased roughly 63.7 garments in 2013, which is more than one item of clothing each week on average [3].

This self-reinforcing cycle has serious consequences on climate change and the environment at large. Because fast-fashion apparel is so inexpensive, customers do not need to think twice when disposing of clothing they no longer want. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 report stated that clothing and footwear generated 11.1 million tons of waste in 2013 [4]. This waste has major ramifications on the environment: chemicals from color-treated fabric can seep into groundwater from the landfill and release toxins into the air if the waste is incinerated [5].

The fast-fashion carbon footprint extends across the entire supply chain. Raw material is often sourced from countries like China or India. However, to keep prices as low as possible, fast-fashion players have started to shift manufacturing processes to countries with dirt cheap labor, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Raw materials are shipped to garment factories, and the finished products are shipped to retail stores worldwide. The shipment of goods across countries requires substantial transport resources, which drives up greenhouse gas emissions. Although Forever21 ships via sea versus air to curb its carbon emissions [6], one cargo ship can still produce as many pollutants as 50 million cars annually [7].

So, what exactly is Forever21 currently doing?

Forever21 has taken a number of steps to improve upon its energy efficiency and decrease its carbon footprint. At the store level, Forever21 has committed to using “energy efficient lighting systems to vastly cut down on the energy usage.” In 2015, Forever21 installed a 5.1 megawatt solar installation on top of its DC warehouse, which is estimated to reduce production of carbon dioxide by 13 million pounds per year [6]. In addition, the company has committed to help push forth Los Angeles’ Feed-in Tariff program; the target goal is to generate 33% of total energy from renewable energy sources in 2020 [6].


Forever21 Los Angeles headquarters/warehouse

Is this enough?

While Forever21 has taken initial strides in the right direction, it is far from where it needs to be to be. To cut down on its environmental impact, Forever21 will need to rethink how it operates its entire supply chain process, from the sourcing of raw material, operations in its garment factories, to delivery of its product to its retail stores.

  1. Use of eco-friendly material in production: Forever21 needs to start using more eco-friendly fabrics in its apparel production. Use of textiles made from recycled materials, such as recycled polyester and wool, not only reduces energy and water usage, but also lowers overall greenhouse gasses emitted during the production process. [8]
  2. Localized Sourcing: By working with local suppliers, Forever21 will be able to respond to market demand more efficiently and cut down on utilization of resources used to produce unnecessary inventory. In addition, carbon emissions from the transport of goods from factories to warehouses to the final retail destination will be significantly reduced.

Above all, the biggest hurdle for the company is figuring out how to reposition its consumer-facing strategy to best market eco-friendly fashion products, a major challenge in an industry in which “environment” and “fashion-forward” are frequently perceived as contradictions. Many fast-fashion enthusiasts are, at best, neutral towards sustainable fashion and, at worst, completely uninterested in environmental issues. However, the purchasing decisions of these individuals are heavily influenced not only by their own individual attitudes, but also by relevant social norms [9]. Forever21 must recalibrate its marketing strategy towards addressing just that – making sustainable fashion the “new normal” and not just an afterthought for fashion-conscious consumers.

The unsustainable nature of the fast-fashion industry is very much a “chicken or the egg” problem. Forever21 must make the first move. As to whether to purchase the $5 sweatshirt: the ball is now in your court.

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[1] “#96: Forever 21; America’s Largest Private Companies,” Forbes. Accessed November 2016.

[2] Bain, Marc. “The Neurological Pleasures of Fast Fashion,” The Atlantic. March 25, 2015. Accessed November 2016.

[3] “ApparelStats 2014 and ShoeStats 2014 Reports,” American Apparel & Footwear Association. January 9, 2015. Accessed November 2016.

[4] “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013,” United States Environmental Protection Agency. June 2015. Accessed November 2016.

[5] Wicker, Alden. “Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis,” Newsweek. September 2, 2016. Accessed November 2016.

[6] “Forever 21 and Corporate Social Responsibility,” Forever 21 Official Website. Accessed November 2016.

[7] “Fast Fashion is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil,” EcoWatch. August 17, 2015.–1882083445.html Accessed November 2016.

[8] Shen, Bin, “Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Lessons from H&M,” Accessed November 2016.

[9] McNeill, Lisa and Rebecca Moore, “Sustainable fashion consumption and the fast fashion conundrum: fashionable consumers and attitudes to sustainability in clothing choice,” Accessed November 2016.

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Student comments on Not So Fast: The Unglamorous Side of Fast-Fashion

  1. While I agree that Forever21 will need to reconsider its sustainability efforts and perhaps pursue eco-friendly recycled materials, without backward integration, I wonder how Forever21 will execute this strategy. The issue of traceability of materials has been a top-of-mind roadblock for sustainability programs for consumer products and retail companies due to multi-layered distribution systems of raw materials; Forever21 will have to go multiple layers into the supply chain to guarantee eco-friendliness of raw materials.

  2. I completely agree with your take on next steps for the fast-fashion industry, but I wonder what ramifications this might have to its business model: by being more eco-friendly, they probably will need to raise prices on those t-shirts and they’ll end up impairing their whole image as an inexpensive fast-fashion retailer. That also might leave a gap for other competitors to enter their market, since demand has already been created and must be serviced. Also, by raising the issue of sustainability in their customers’ minds, they might decide that they do not need 63 clothing items every year and thus erode their own customer base. I would actually argue that the whole concept of fast-fashion should disappear if we want to really tackle the climate change problem.

  3. Agree with the article and comments above. I think Forever21 needs to address “customers do not need to think twice when disposing of clothing they no longer want” by encouraging customers to return such items to the shop in order for them to be recycled, or to ease the process of donating such items to shelters and low income families, to avoid redundant waste.

  4. Interesting article about the fast-fashion industry! It really open my eyes on my own spending habits as well, as a consumer, and how I am contributing to the climate change based on my demand. Forever21’s value proposition is based on cheap trends for the aspiring fashionistas with limited spending power. It usually copies popular designs from the runway but with cheaper materials. I wonder given all the materials used for the clothing is relatively the same (no hand-crafted jewelry or silk used here), Forever21 can employ a “recycling” program where consumers can donate their outdated styled clothing for a discount? These clothes could be re-purposed for other items, such as handbags or scarves.

  5. I think Forever21 definitely has an interesting challenge as they rely heavily on constant consumption from its customers. I found the stat that in 2013, consumers on average purchased 63.7 garments to be really eye-opening. Since Forever21 sells clothing that people wear few times before moving onto something else, Forever21 doesn’t have a huge incentive to make more sustainable clothing if that means increasing costs that are then passed onto consumers (potentially pricing some consumers out of the market). I definitely see potential for a recycled clothing program run by Forever21 to supplement their current efforts. The fact that they have frequent touchpoints with their customers means that this could be feasibly implemented.

  6. Great post! I completely agree with you that Forever21 has a huge role to play in making sustainable fashion the “new normal,” and it is heartening to see the company start to move in that direction. Interestingly, other fast fashion brands are starting to move in this direction — for instance, H&M is currently conducting a massive campaign to get consumers to recycle their clothing. Ideally, if a few heavy hitters in this retail segment are able to capture market share through some of these initiatives, reflecting a growing desire from consumers to see companies move towards sustainable practices, many other brands will be pressured to follow suit. However, it is also important to note that, while highly visible initiatives like a clothing recycle programs are great, there is a very dark underbelly to many companies like Forever21 that we don’t see. It would be to the advantage of Forever21, I believe, to be proactive and vocal in addressing them, and to be the leader among its peers in tackling the industry’s toughest challenges.

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