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(forbes.com)
(forbes.com)

What faith is your fashion? Looking into Forever 21’s hidden religious undertones

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As a presumed general rule of consumer culture, products are available for sale to any interested buyer and businesses are motivated primarily by economic profit; however, in recent years it has come to light that some multinational corporations subliminally promote religious agendas through their product lines and, for the most part, have inconspicuously avoided the detection of their customers. One of these corporations is Forever 21.

For unemployed, penniless undergrad students at McGill, Forever 21 has always been a go-to, ring it up quick, pay in quarters fashion mecca. A lesser-known fact, however, is that Forever 21 has a bible verse printed clandestinely on the bottom of its classic yellow shopping bag: “John 3:16.” This verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Fashion mecca is perhaps a misnomer; Forever 21 is, in truth, a fashion chapel. Shopping bag evangelism is not Forever 21’s only method for disseminating religious propaganda. Every season the retail chain presents a line of christian apparel, ranging from cross jewellery to angel wing embellished jackets to graphic tees with overt slogans printed across them, like ‘Jesus loves me.’

“When I’m walking around the store it's very apparent, anything with crosses, or their necklaces, I now know is not just a fashionable trend, but actually a religious cross, not just ‘Oh this is so trendy,’” Marie-Laure Droeshout, a Concordia Communications and Cultural Studies student and frequent Forever 21 shopper, said.

The store caters to a market for religious wear that many students have unknowingly been subsidizing.

“I don't think the consumers realize,” Joseph Dahdah, U3 Math and former Forever 21 employee said. “I mean even the employees didn't realize that Forever 21 had a Christian background.”

The multinational corporation with over 600 stores worldwide was conceived through a numinous religious experience. Forever 21’s co-founders, Jin Sook and Do Won Chang, are born-again Christians who immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea in 1981 with no money, no college degrees, and limited English. Now, the couple have a combined estimated net worth of $6.1 billion. According to an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, their religion plays a huge role in how they operate the company, from turning to a higher power during stressful company decisions, to keeping bibles at their store headquarters.

“God told [me I] should open a store and that [I] would be successful,” Founder and Chief Merchandising Officer Jin Sook Chang said. “Every decision that [I] made has been with thoughtful prayer.”  

“Successful” is a blurry ambition, as it is unclear whether the measure of success is capital augmentation or spreading the spiritual word of God through commerce. Since consumers can never be certain whether they are buying into religious imagery or the latest vogue trend, one surefire way to expose a corporation’s motives is to investigate the company’s conduct toward its employees. The use of religious symbolism and harsh treatment of employees both exemplify the corporate leaders of Forever 21 using unfriendly mechanisms in pursuit of profit.

“[When I worked at Forever 21,] it was always about selling, even more so than in other jobs,” Dahdah said. “Even customer service, I find, in my opinion, is not the best at Forever 21. We have so many customers that we do what we can, but it's all about selling and getting a certain number of sales by the end of the day.”

Forever 21 is not the only corporation to embrace religious beliefs in their modus operandi. American fast food company Carl’s Jr. has a tradition of commencing every meeting with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance. Similarly, Chick-fil-a operates according to the Southern Baptist beliefs of it’s founder Truett Cathy. Millions of Chick-fil-a profit dollars have funneled into organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), that are considered antagonistic toward LGBTQ2IA+ rights. Some of PFI’s efforts include conversion therapy and lobbying against a Pennsylvania state effort to ban prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yet the religious tendencies of chains like Chick-fil-a and Forever 21 have not gone unnoticed by customers, thanks to the viral circulation of social media.

“You can’t assume all of your consumers are Christian, let alone impose that on all of their shopping bags. It almost feels like an imposition on public property. Public space,” Droeshout said.  “I don’t think that it’s very right, if you will […] most companies don’t talk about their political views on things.”

That said, there are occasional cases in which the collaboration of faith and business is constructive. For example, the CEO of Timberland, Jeff Swartz, was prompted by his devout Jewish beliefs to refuse a continued partnership with a Chinese factory when it was discovered that the workers were being treated unjustly.

I have a religious feeling that guides me,” Swartz said in a Fast Company profile. “I can’t show you the scripture that relates to the rights of a worker, but I can show you text that insists upon treating others with dignity.”

There are implications that are important to think about when supporting a faith-driven business. In some cases, the fusion of these two public spheres provides a healthy moral ethic of production, just as religion is a moral guideline in life for many believers. In other cases, a sinister intolerance is fostered instead. Whether or not the inscriptions on Forever 21 bags lean one way or the other depends on an individual’s perspective.

“I think [enterprises are] intolerant enough already now in regular companies that have no religious, or spiritual, or charitable causes that they hold you to,” Dahdah said.

In theory, every religious and economic leader could fluidly transpose a doctrine of faith-based values into a workplace mandate to make the environment healthier for both employee and customer. In practice, not every corporation and individual entrepreneur executes this safely and tolerantly.

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