At the end of Sept. 2019, Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy.
Some analysts believe that Forever 21’s bankruptcy filing is indicative of a shift in consumers’ tastes and preferences — one that veers away from the follies of fast fashion — but there’s reason to believe that the industry is doing just fine. Fast fashion refers to mass-produced clothes based on current trends, generating tons of waste and low-quality items. Examples of fast fashion brands include a mix of storefront and online warehouses: ZARA, SHEIN and Missguided, to name a few.
Fast fashion has come under increasing scrutiny for its role as one of the biggest contributors to environmental degradation. As evidence of the environmental toll of fast fashion gains traction, so does the trend of brands willing to capitalize on a shift in consumer interest towards ethical shopping.
In comes Reformation: too good to be true? Spoiler alert — it is. The popular brand checks off all the boxes for a fashionable and environmentally minded consumer: minimal, sleek, casually glamorous and outspokenly environmentally responsible. Unfortunately, if buying high-waisted mini skirts for $98 is within the bounds of what’s reasonable, choosing the environmentally conscious option is incredibly inaccessible — especially when exact replicas of Reformation’s items are sold on SHEIN’s website for $13. Is this the true cost of sustainability? There are certainly people in the world who see $98 as a normal cost for a clothing basic — but does that mean only those people are morally absolved to be sustainable?
Clare O’Connor for Forbes reports: “The prices [of Reformation] — $158 for a stretch jersey maxi dress and $58 for a ribbed off-the-shoulder top — aren’t far off what you might find at less scrupulous chains with manufacturing facilities in places like Bangladesh.” O’Connor’s tone and treatment represent something that’s infected contemporary American marketing: the conflation of moral superiority and classism.
While Reformation’s environmental reputation may be sparkling, their marketing campaign pushing their image is not. It seems as if they’re doing everything they can to make sure the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Reformation is sustainability. The brand’s blog posts attempt to make environmental activism chic, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of consumers. “Carbon is canceled,” one cheery heading on Reformation’s sustainability report reads, stealing slang from social media. The brand uses what they call “sexy math” to calculate the environmental resources they’ve saved. Their tone seems too contrived, too performative — it’s clear that the brand treats environmental preservation as a profitable trend.
At the end of the day, Reformation is a company that, like all others, is in the market to make a profit. But they’ve found a way to bridge social media activism and capitalism to market to their ideal consumer, who believes that $150 dresses and $60 tops are comparable to prices found in notably less ethical — albeit cheaper — brands. And if that’s out of your price range, that’s fine; they’ll just try their best to guilt you into splurging anyway.
Take their slogan for example: “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.” Despite what this slogan claims, Reformation is still producing new clothes — inevitably creating waste. Buying clothes from stores other than Reformation will not immediately send you to climate change hell, just like buying clothes from them doesn’t make you the Greta Thunberg of your friends.
For a company that proclaims to be so dedicated to the cause of sustainability, Reformation doesn’t seem to offer many ways for consumers to get involved with environmentalism that don’t involve a pricetag. There is, of course, the “Ref Guide To Sustainable Travel.” If you’re looking for a four-star hotel and you’ve got over $800 to blow, it’s the perfect guide for you. The guide is short and not very informative and more about connecting customers with environmentally conscious products, rather than encouraging them to change their habits.
Reformation has combined classism and moral superiority to create a contemporary culture of elitism about shoppers’ habits. They don’t advertise themselves as a luxury brand, even if their prices reflect otherwise. If you aren’t part of the inside circle — the one that can afford basics in the three figure mark — then according to Reformation, there’s not much else you can do to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. It seems like the only kind of environmental preservation that Reformation values is the kind you have to pay for.