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 BehindTheLabel.org, 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...)