Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why NOT to shop at Urban Outfitters.

Listen up, lovers of ironic t-shirts, skinny jeans and faux-vintage apparel. Your beloved hipster mecca, otherwise known as chain outlet Urban Outfitters, has a few skeletons in its pseudo-bohemian closet. Superficially speaking, UO could pass for an independent retailer - its target base is young, educated urban consumers; its products cater to an 'indie' niche; its speakers blast Pitchfork's 'best of'' playlist on repeat - morally, however, the store is aligned with massive corporations like The Gap and even Walmart.
With over 75 stores in the United States and roughly 150 stores globally, Urban Outfitters is a multimillion-dollar operation that outsources their clothing from sweatshops in countries like China that utilize child slave labor. LongView Funds, a mutual fund company with a stake in Urban Outfitters Inc., urged the company to adopt international labor standards in 2008. UO declined to adopt and disclose a code of conduct based on basic, internationally-recognized human rights. They instead released a statement saying they "expect[ed] suppliers to adhere to child-labor laws."
If Urban Outfitters is getting its apparel mass-produced in factories across the sea, how does everything look so cool? For starters, the styles are often stolen from local designers. Lillian Crowe, a Brooklyn-based jewelry designer, sells necklaces featuring a rib cage, a spine and the skull of a bull. She recently discovered shockingly similar pieces in the UO catalog. John Earle, graphic artist and creator of online t-shirt vendor Johnny Cupcakes, gladly obliged when Urban Outfitters asked for a few sample designs to be considered for placement in their stores. UO chose not to carry Johnny Cupcakes' products: they instead stole Earle's original art, remaking two of his designs into extremely similar t-shirts under their 'Urban Renewal' label. Urban Outfitters solicited t-shirts from an artist, then stole his concepts after choosing not to license his work. To think that UO panders to an 'artsy' demographic. Urban Outfitters v. Johnny Cupcakes
Moreover, the political bent of UO President Richard Hayne would likely dismay the young, progressive crowd that his company attracts. Richard Hayne, whose net worth is $1.8 billion, donated tens of thousands of dollars to former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) - the same politician who compared homosexuality to beastiality in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press.
Urban Outfitters is just one example of a company that projects an image completely different from what its executives are really all about. This incongruity represents a common, troubling phenomenon in retail.
The Gap and Lord & Taylor are widely regarded as classy merchandisers with high-quality apparel, yet, an online news magazine that covers sweatshop issues in the global clothing industry, cites them as "responsible for the global sweatshop crisis." Starbucks touts itself as a "responsible" company that has a "positive impact on the communities [it] serve[s]", yet similarly exploits foreign labor and has been additionally attacked for using genetically modified ingredients. In an ideal world, companies would wear their hearts on their sleeves; their products would reflect not only what they believe, but also their actions.
If goods are manufactured in a locale where the wages paid are significantly lower than US minimum wage, it's sweatshop labor. If the workers manufacturing those goods would be considered minors and subjected to US child labor laws, it's sweatshop labor. How to begin your life as a conscious consumer? Checking the tag for that 'Made in the USA' affirmation is a great first step.

(Or try consuming less. There's an idea worth considering...)


  1. Thank you. Thank you for putting this knowledge out there so the ignorant youth of the world can see UO as it truly is
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  2. Thank you, for spreading knowledge. Knowledge is power.

  3. I'm new to being a more conscious consumer. It's extremely important. Now that I know to be aware, it's practically all I can think about. This has to stop. I hope more people become conscious consumers and realize that supporting these companies is screwing society. We HAVE to care enough to be more aware.

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  4. Very interesting post. My brother had a deal with Anthropologie (also owned by UO) where he got taken advantage of. They took his artwork, got rid of him and kept using it, outsourcing the talent who would copy the paintings. It is important to be aware of what kind of companies you're dealing with and which you choose to support with your purchases.

    Although I agree with your overall sentiment, I don't think it's fair to say that if the workers are paid less than minimum wage, it's sweatshop labor. I taught English in China and I was definitely paid less than the minimum wage by U.S. standards, but it was still plenty of money to get by. The cost of living differs from place to place and I don't think using the U.S. as a means of measurement is that accurate.

    Also, you mention that Starbucks uses genetically modified products. That's not really a problem and I don't think it should be approached as such. Most modern food has been genetically modified. The modern tomato and corn are a couple of examples. The grapefruit is another. It took longer, they were modified the old-fashioned way--breeding over many generations. But genetic modification in the lab is basically a sped-up version of that. Check out Norman Borlaug, a scientist humanitarian who through genetic engineering saved an estimated 1 billion people worldwide by creating crops that were high-yield and disease-resistent. He went to poor countries like Mexico, India and China as well as some countries in Africa to help them modify their crops.

  5. i can picture a fugazi song about this issue.

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  8. Thank you for this article!