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‘A tipping point in fast fashion’: Forever 21’s bankruptcy signals the shifting priorities of young shoppers

Consumers are more environmentally conscious about their clothes, experts say, and are buying accordingly.

Low-price fashion chain Forever 21, a one-time hot destination for teen shoppers that fell victim to its own rapid expansion and changing consumer tastes, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Annmarie Eovaldi used to hit Forever 21 just about every week. It was the perfect place, she said, to pick up an $18 romper or orange high heels — the fashion equivalent of a cheap thrill.

But a couple of years ago, around the time she turned 21, Eovaldi says she started to consider the environmental implications of cycling through low-quality pieces in the name of fashion.

“When I bought something, it would only last two or three wears before the color faded or the seams fell apart or the zipper broke,” said Eovaldi, a college student in Rochester, Mich. “That’s the trade-off you make when you shop at Forever 21: cheap prices but a huge amount of waste.”

Now she shops elsewhere, dropping away from the fast-fashion frenzy that has dominated much of retail for the past 20 years and given rise to such teen and young adult favorites as Forever 21, H&M and Zara.

But when Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy this week and announced it would close 350 stores worldwide, it became latest retail casualty of changing consumer habits. There were a number of reasons for its decline — including an overreliance on mall stores and its failure to invest online — but analysts say its troubles also signal a shift in consumers’ thinking about what essentially is disposable clothing.

“We’re approaching a tipping point in fast fashion,” said Alexandra Sargent Capps, who teaches a course on fashion sustainability at Vanderbilt University. “Forever 21 was one of the original sinners of fast fashion — it helped invent the model and pushed it onto young people. Now its bankruptcy is part of a bigger movement to turn that around.”

Forever 21 files for bankruptcy, will close 350 stores worldwide amid restructuring

The environmental effects of fast fashion are well-documented: The apparel industry is a major source of water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In 2015, Americans threw out nearly 12 million tons of clothing and shoes, three times as much as they did in 1990, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The vast majority of those items — 69 percent — ended up in landfills.

There is also a human toll: Such retailers tend to rely on low-wage workers in countries like China and Bangladesh, where they have few protections.

Today’s consumers are looking for ways to reduce the cycle of waste, Capps said. As a result they are more open to buying used and vintage clothing, fueling the growth of resale sites like ThredUp, Poshmark and the RealReal. A number of major chains, including American Eagle Outfitters and Ann Taylor, have introduced rental plans that allow shoppers to borrow what they need for a flat monthly rate. And newer retailers like Reformation, Allbirds, Everlane and Rothy’s have built their brands around promises of transparent sourcing and responsible labor practices.

“Young people are becoming much more environmentally conscious,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based market research firm. “They’ve shifted their mentality and are saying, ‘We don’t have to be gluttonous about fashion anymore.’ "

Some fast-fashion chains also are responding to consumer demand. Zara’s parent company, Inditex, projects it will complete its transition to using only organic, sustainable or recycled cotton, linen and polyester by 2025. London-based Asos, which posted a 87 percent drop in profits in the first half of its fiscal year, has said it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Meanwhile H&M, which is closing 160 stores this year amid stalling sales and slipping profits, is doubling down on its Conscious line, which includes organic and sustainable options. It also offers discounts for shoppers who bring in clothing to recycle.

Even so, industry insiders say the movement is still in its early stages.

“The word might be out that there’s something wrong with fast fashion, but the alternatives are not that robust,” said Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.”

In her new book, “Conscious Closet,” Cline offers a number of ways shoppers can make more environmentally friendly decisions, including getting more use out of the items they already own, shopping secondhand and mending items instead of throwing them away.

“Sustainable fashion does not mean going out and buying a $200 organic cotton dress,” she said. “The most important thing is to shift your purchases away from big companies that are doing absolutely nothing to be sustainable, and I would include Forever 21 in that category.”

A spokeswoman for Forever 21 said the company “continues to explore different sustainability and social responsibility initiatives." A new recycling program in its Los Angeles stores, for example, allows shoppers to drop off used clothing and shoes in exchange for a discount. She added that the company transports merchandise by sea instead of air to lower carbon emissions, and that it conserves energy by using solar panels at its headquarters and energy-efficient lighting at its newest stores.

“We are constantly listening to our customers and working to evolve to meet their needs and expectations," Alecia Pulman said in an email.

For decades, Forever 21 — known for churning out of-the-moment items at rock-bottom prices — was a fast-fashion pioneer, giving Americans the kind of instant gratification traditional department stores could not. It made billions selling $4 leggings and $16 dresses to teenagers and 20-somethings.

But as those shoppers grew up, analysts say, Forever 21 didn’t. Sales fell to $3.3 billion last year, a 25 percent decline from $4.4 billion two years earlier.

“Their customers are getting older, they’re aging out of disposable fashion and they want things that last,” said Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Gen Z and Millennials take social responsibility very seriously.”

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But, she added, that doesn’t mean demand for low-priced, trendy clothing has disappeared. Online retailers like Fashion Nova, Missguided and Lulus have won over market share in recent years by appealing to young shoppers directly on Instagram. And Target, she said, has carved out its own nice selling “cheap and cheerful” clothing to the masses.

Eovaldi, the Michigan college student, said she now shops at Loft, Target and Old Navy, where garments have a longer life span. She also browses secondhand stores.

“I try my best to find affordable clothes that last,” she said. “It isn’t always easy.”

At Vanderbilt, Capps says her students are “rethinking what they buy and why they’re buying it,” though they are often “shocked by price tags for sustainable fashion.”

Low prices are what keep Sana Abdu returning to Forever 21. The 33-year-old said she stops in every few weeks for a pair of $20 skinny jeans. Each one, she said, lasts about six months.

“They’re not that great in quality, but in terms of price — well, that’s why I shop here,” she said, clutching the chain’s bright yellow shopping bag on a recent weekday morning. She was leaving the company’s sprawling store in downtown Washington, one of nearly 180 U.S. locations on the chopping block.

“I’m frugal,” said Abdu, a recruiter for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “The cheaper, the better.”

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