The following article reflects the views of She’s Fit to Lead contributor Unu Sohn. While this article is not an editorial that depicts the views of She’s Fit to Lead on the whole, this article does support our mission–to provide women a medium in which they can voice their opinions, passions, concerns and successes to inspire others. We fully support Unu in her attempt to inspire change, just as we support all of our She’s Fit to Lead-ers who work day-in and day-out to create the life they’ve always dreamed of.
I haven’t bought anything from Urban Outfitters in over a year now. Before I boycotted them, I used to buy tons of their stuff–tops, pants, shorts, shoes, backpacks, and even underwear. I think my love for the brand and their products began my junior year of high school. Hong Kong and Seoul, where I’m originally from, didn’t, and still doesn’t, have any Urban stores, so I lusted over their products from afar. Once I came to UCLA, I regularly went to the Urban Outfitters that was only a 15-minute walk away from campus.
Then, at the end of my sophomore year, I read up on Urban and some of the scandals they’ve had in the past. I began to think of Urban as shady, but I didn’t stop buying from them immediately. I really loved Urban, especially with their great online sales, and I’m only human. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I decided I didn’t want my money to go to such a company because, as a customer, I would be condoning their actions. And I’m not alone; I am one of the 83 percent of millennials who believe businesses should be involved in societal issues. Like a great majority of millennials, I believe that large businesses have the clout to demand a better world. In addition, I like to think that conscious consumers have the clout to demand that from companies. Specifically for Urban Outfitters, I didn’t’ want to support a company that had a history of allegedly stealing from smaller independent artists and trying to profit from insensitive designs. I also felt uncomfortable with Urban’s marketing, and the lack of continuity between its actual values and what it seemed to value in its public image.
What first raised red flags for me was how Urban didn’t prioritize due process in obtaining designs for their products. I first read about a case of copyright infringement, in which Urban used a design allegedly stolen from artist James Soare for a skirt. With just a few Google searches, I found that this had happened before: Urban had featured state-shaped necklaces very similar to artist Stevie Koerner’s “United States of Love” line before pulling their renditions off shelves. UO claimed that it was a coincidence, as similar designs had been sold prior to Koerner’s line. More recently, a 2013 t-shirt featured a design allegedly stolen from Tumblr artist Glam-Trash. That being said, the fashion industry is chock-full of companies copying others’ designs. Blatantly copying in the fashion industry can, in certain circumstances, actually be legal. Law professor Susan Scafidi described this practice as “part of their business strategy. They go ahead and they take what they want, and when they get caught, they pay up. It’s probably cheaper than licensing it in the first place.” But c’mon Urban Outfitters. You are a big company, that also owns Anthropologie and Free People, by the way. You can’t afford to hire your own people to create designs? Or pay independent artists to use their work?
On top of this, I was shocked by Urban’s insensitivity. I knew of their shirt emblazoned with the words “Eat Less,” but I later came across even more instances of how Urban had banked in on controversy: They had sold a $129 sweatshirt splattered in red, which resembled blood, with the Kent State University logo. Many interpreted this as referring to the 1970 Kent State shootings, in which four students were killed and nine were injured protesting the Vietnam War. Is it pure coincidence that this “vintage” sweater happened to be stained red? And was it pure coincidence that it had the Kent State University logo? Out of all the schools in the U.S., it just so happened to be Kent State? It really would be a huge coincidence since the second autofill result for my Google search of “Kent State University” was “Kent State shooting.”
Urban Outfitters designs have also–on multiple occasions–appropriated the culture of the Navajo Nation, who sued Urban back in 2012. This case finally saw progress on Thursday, March 31, when Judge Bruce Black sided with the Navajo Nation, although specifics regarding compensation have yet to be hashed out. Other controversial designs include one featuring the Star of David, which Jewish people were forced to wear in Nazi Europe, as well as a tapestry similar to the clothing gay men were forced to wear in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Apparently Urban’s intent was not to promote the Holocaust or the Kent State shootings, just as their intent wasn’t to steal designs from Soare, Koerner, or Glam-Trash.
All of this is questionable, if not outright unethical. History aside, I also felt conflicted about how Urban markets itself. While Urban’s public image is progressive and controversial, which largely attracts liberal, pro-gay rights millennials, Urban’s President Richard Hayne has previously donated to support Rick Santorum, a politician known for his strong anti-gay position. Some members of the LGBT+ community may be aware of Urban’s image as a facade, but many allies of the non-LGBT+ community, which make up a large part of Urban’s customer demographic, may not be aware of this. The company’s stance on LGBT+ issues is murky, as they seemed to support same-sex marriage in one instance. This seems at odds with how the CEO of Urbn Inc., the parent company of Urban, used to be openly gay Glen Senk, but was replaced by right-winged Hayne, with his history of supporting anti-gay and pro-life politicians. Make of that what you will.
With Urban’s patterns of exploiting artists and disrespecting communities, I couldn’t continue to shop at Urban. When boycotting companies, some people choose to throw out any products they bought in the past, but I kept the clothes I purchased before my decision in 2014. I find that keeping these products can be a means of resistance. When someone compliments any of the stuff I previously purchased from Urban, I reply, “Thanks. It’s from Urban Outfitters, but I don’t shop there anymore.” It’s been a good transition into discussing not only Urban Outfitters, but also ethical businesses in general. I also use those reusable Urban bags. They’re great for grocery shopping. I flip them inside out so the logo isn’t showing. And if someone asks why I’m using the bags inside-out, perfect, another conversation-starter.
Boycotting a company sucks. I have these two basic Urban tank tops in grey and white that I love. I wish I could buy them in every color. I will mourn the day they rip or get stained, but, that aside, there are so many alternative places to shop so I’ll survive. I like to think that this is just one of the many ways I can contribute to improving the world. Despite the bad rep that millennials get, we are pushing companies like Urban to step it up.
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