When a Brand Becomes Obsolete

Imagine a little 10 year old boy making a shirt that you bought your son at GAP Kids. That is exactly what happened when a 12 year old girl was found in Cambodia making clothes in 2010 for GAP. The company issued a statement shortly afterwards stating that they were investigating this incident and would take action immediately. Did they really take action? Seven years later it happened again in India when children were found making clothes for GAP Kids.

Comedian John Oliver, recently highlighted this issue and raised some thought provoking and legitimate points that will leave you laughing at the ludicrous behavior of major brands but also will leave you with a very sour aftertaste of the TRUTH behind it.

"It would be like telling a child in India, please make a shirt in your size, only 1,000 of them as quickly as you can," -John Oliver.

The whole fashion industry is built on shaky ground. Consumers on average purchased 64 fashion items last year. Trendy clothing is cheaper than ever and our friends abroad are paying the price. Take Forever 21 for example, a company that grossed $3.1 billion in sales in 2013. OwnersJin Sook and Do Won Chang are worth $4.5 billion but they can't even spread the love to their employees in the United States.

To place this in corporate social responsibility when it should be a part of the business model - "treat employees fairly and make sure that any person that has a touch point with their supply chain is not forced or coerced to work with little or no pay." The company slaps on the bible verse John 3:16 on every bag but that is hypocrisy because based on their behavior their God only cares about the consumers and not the workers. Here is a timeline that illuminates how serious they are about addressing this issue:

In 2001, Forever 21 had a sweatshop in downtown LA where workers were working 10-12 hour days for pitiful wages, no overtime and horrible, dirty conditions with rats and roaches running around.

One of the factory workers told Bloomberg Businessweek she was paid 12 cents per piece to sew vests that sell for $13.80.

In 2001, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the newly created Garment Worker Center filed suit against Forever 21 on behalf of 19 workers, alleging unfair business practices and wage violations. The workers were sewing at seven different small factories--they called them sweatshops--that had been contracted to produce garments for Forever 21. This was just a few years after some 70 Thai garment workers had been freed from near-slave conditions in El Monte, CA, making Forever 21 apparel.

In 2001, they moved most of their production to Asia following the settlement of a 2001 lawsuit in America where the workers complained about the sweatshop conditions. The majority of their manufacturing is now in China, Pakistan and Vietnam , all countries where there is obviously far more accountability that the United States, sarcasm intended. It is frightening imagining what is going on with the factories overseas that are Forever21 suppliers.

In 2008, a class action lawsuit claimed that many of the chain's in-store employees are minimum wage high school workers who didn't understand their employee rights. The lawsuit claimed the company "systematically failed to pay them for they're hours worked.

In 2012, the US Department of Labor uncovered minimum-wage and overtime violations in LA sewing factories where it found clothes being made for Forever 21.
In response a Forever 21 spokeswoman said that the company takes smaller profit margins on the merchandise and passes on the savings to customers.

Excuse after excuse....enough is enough. As a consumer, I don't want Forever 21 to pass on any savings to me when it means that a child is literally chained to a sewing machine in Pakistan. The bottom line is, who can make a living making a pair of $10 jeans when companies like Forever 21 drive prices down to optimize their profits. There is absolutely no accountability in the retail industry. Even John Oliver, the comedian is aware of this and so eloquently points out on his show. Companies like Forever 21 turn a blind eye rationalizing that they have corporate policies stating they are not liable for working conditions, especially if the factory subcontracts the work out to another factory.

There is a major problem when the company thinks of providing ethical wages and good working conditions as a corporate social responsibility as opposed to a core value built into their business model. As of July 7, 2015, this is what Forever 21 lists on their website in the Corporate Social Responsibility section:

1. Supplier and Vendor Social Compliance and Ethical Sourcing

We care not only for our employees but also for the employees of hundreds of vendor manufacturing facilities throughout the world which make our products. We want all of these employees also to work in safe and healthy environments and to provide products to you, the consumer, which are made by such employees.

Therefore, our Corporate Social Responsibility program includes the Forever 21 Vendor Audit Program. While many of our vendors have worked with Forever 21 for a number of years and are trusted, all suppliers and vendors must provide factory contact information and all factories must participate in the audit program.

There is scant information on what exactly is the, "audit program." Based on their track record, I don't have much hope that the company is taking this matter seriously. With the rise of millennial activism and in this day and age where information is disseminated in the matter of seconds via Twitter, FaceBook and other social media, Forever 21 will be obsolete if actions are not taken to address exploitation in their supply chains. For example, two months ago, I told Dale White, my colleague in the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program about Forever 21's track record and major labor violations. He shared this with his daughter, Kennedy who shopped at Forever 21. She immediately threw away all of her Forever 21 clothing and committed to never shop there again. Now if his daughter tells two more people and they tell two more people who tell two more people...keeps going, the compounding effect in 20 years is 7 billion people. Now we know that information is exchanged much more rapidly than that. At this rate, Forever 21 better take this matter seriously or be obsolete in the coming years ahead.