Fast fashion online retailer Fashion Nova is known for making cheap, Instagram hottie-ready clothes that are hawked and worn by everyone from Cardi B to Kylie Jenner. The clothes are so cheap that I’ve spent too many hours of my life browsing the site, tempted by the company’s low prices to buy outfits that I’m too chickenshit to ever wear.
It has been obvious since the company was founded that Fashion Nova’s business model must be built on exploitation—trends can’t become products in mere days, and at such low prices, without someone’s rights being violated. So it should come as no surprise that, as the New York Times reported, the company’s clothes are often made by workers in Los Angeles who are illegally paid less than the minimum wage, some of whom are compensated as little as $2.77 per hour by their bosses.
According to the Times, in 2019, “Fashion Nova’s labels were the ones found the most frequently by federal investigators looking into garment factories that pay egregiously low wages.” All combined, the factories owed almost $4 million in back wages to their workers, who were paid less than the minimum wage and not paid overtime.
Fashion Nova’s model is the same playbook employed by companies like Forever 21 and H&M, sped up dramatically. And, like many fast fashion retailers who rely on sweatshop labor and an often undocumented immigrant workforce to make their “affordable” clothes, Fashion Nova has been able to evade responsibility for these labor violations by placing the blame on the subcontractors they hire to act as a middleman between the company and the factories. As Fashion Nova’s legal counsel told the Times of their contractors, the company “is not responsible for how these vendors handle their payrolls.”
But the reality is that the low wages are facilitated in large part by Fashion Nova’s business model, which is helping to drive an industry-wide race to the bottom. More, from the Times:
The five owners and employees who agreed to be interviewed said Fashion Nova would always push to pay the lowest price possible for each garment, and would demand a quick turnaround.
“They give me the best possible price they can give it to me, for that will allow them to still break a profit,” [Fashion Nova founder Richard] Saghian said.
The companies can negotiate with Fashion Nova, but their power is limited. A dwindling number of retailers are still doing business in Los Angeles, and a couple of big orders from Fashion Nova can keep a small garment shop afloat for another year. So they look for subcontractors who can sew clothes as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Though Fashion Nova has taken some steps to address the labor violations found at the factories that make its clothing, they are laughably insufficient:
The company’s lawyers told the officials that they had taken immediate action and had already updated the brand’s agreement with vendors. Now, if Fashion Nova learns that a factory has been charged with violating laws “governing the wages and hours of its employees, child labor, forced labor or unsafe working conditions,” the brand will put the middleman who hired that factory on a six-month “probation,” it said in a statement.
The working relationship would continue, unless workers file another complaint against the same factory or another one that the contractor hired during those six months. At that point, the brand will suspend the contractor until it passes a third-party audit.
And it’s the workers who suffer. Take the experience of Mercedes Cortes, who made Fashion Nova clothing at a factory named Coco Love. “There were cockroaches. There were rats,” Cortes told the Times. “The conditions weren’t good.” She made about $4.66 an hour, working each day of the week. (In 2016, she reached a settlement with Coco Love and was paid $5,000 in back wages.) Teresa Garcia, another worker at a factory making Fashion Nova clothing, has a pending claim for stolen wages; at times she was only paid $3.46 an hour and worked upwards of 60 hours per week.
As Cortes put it, “The clothes are very expensive for what they pay us.”
Updated [12/16/19, 2:53 p.m.] The headline of this story has been updated to clarify that Fashion Nova does not directly employ the workers at its factories.