Unfit to outfit

Buyers should be wary of products that promote unfair stereotypes or destructive behaviors

College students are often looking to make a statement. Sometimes, such statements are political and manifest themselves through a boycott of a company or product. A few months ago, for instance, a large number of Chick-fil-A customers vowed to end their patronage after Dan Cathy, the company’s president chief operating officer, publicly made anti-gay remarks and it was revealed that Chick-fil-a profits had been donated to a group that fights marriage-equality efforts. While I understand and admire the intention of the Chick-fil-A boycotts and think that promoting equal treatment of LGBTQ Americans is a worthy cause, it seems to me that college students are misplacing their activist efforts. Boycotting companies that actively promote discrimination or send a blatantly negative message with their products would be a better choice.

Chick-fil-A became politicized because of the beliefs of one of its executives. I am not condoning Mr. Cathy’s beliefs, but his beliefs should not have defined his company. Additionally, Mr. Cathy is an incredibly wealthy man and, given his views, would likely donate to anti-gay groups regardless of public opinion or the relative success of his company. In contrast to politicized companies such as Chick-fil-A, there are companies that actually promote harmful messages with their products or by their design. One example is Urban Outfitters.

In August 2012, The Week published a column detailing the top 11 controversies surrounding the company, many of which involved the slogans printed on Urban Outfitters’ clothing. In October, Business Insider was able to list 12 things Urban Outfitters had done to “make people hate them.” Like Chick-fil-A, Urban Outfitters has an executive who has made risky decisions with his symbolic speech: The company’s president, Dick Hayne, donated more than $13,000 to Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign. But you should not stop wearing Urban Outfitters clothes for that reason. Rather you should object to the actual designs the company’s clothes display.

Most affronting was a shirt which touted the advice, “Eat Less.” The fashion industry makes young girls feel insecure enough when they hire size-zero models and manufacture clothing that doesn’t flatter most body shapes. But for clothing to explicitly encourage starvation goes a step too far. By purchasing this shirt or any other from Urban Outfitters, customers are endorsing the idea that young women should eat less in an attempt to conform to beauty standards. You may argue that it’s just a shirt and it doesn’t make a difference. But it does; it perpetuates the dangerous ways of thinking in today’s society, which drive women (and sometimes men) to make unhealthy and frightening choices. Although Urban Outfitters removed the shirt from its website in June 2010 after many complaints, the article of clothing remained in stores.

Urban Outfitters also exploits cultural symbols and stereotypes in an attempt to seem funny, hip, or ironic. But they more often offend than entertain. In 2011, Urban Outfitters manufactured a line of clothing, including a selection of undergarments, labeled as “Navajo.” Besides being a legal issue, because the Navajo nation has a trademark on the label “Navajo,” the clothing was racially and culturally demeaning. Other clothing from Urban Outfitters promotes irresponsible behavior, such as excessive drinking, while simultaneously insulting those of Irish heritage. Two shirts had the slogans “Irish I Were Drunk” and “Kiss Me, I’m Drunk. Or Irish. Or Whatever.” There was also a shirt bearing a symbol which looked strikingly similar to the Jewish star of David, evoking complaints from the Anti-Defamation League.

Apart from its offensive clothing products, Urban Outfitters marketed a Monopoly spoof game called “Ghettopoly.” Many of the game squares contained derogatory language and played off stereotypes commonly associated with African Americans. Properties for purchase included Harlem and the Bronx, and game cards would give directions such as, “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50.” Many of the words on the board — including Dr. Martin Luther King’s name — were misspelled.

Urban Outfitters has also been accused, though not convicted, of stealing clothing and jewelry designs from independent artists. The most publicized scandals include the alleged rip-off of Johnny Cupcake’s T-shirt design in 2006, and the jewelry produced in 2011 which greatly resembled designs by an Etsy user (Etsy is a virtual marketplace focusing on vintage and handcrafted items). I will acknowledge that copyright on ideas is a tricky concept, and especially now that commerce has moved online it is difficult to defend artistic license. That said, some of the allegedly “stolen” merchandise blatantly resembled the originals, and if you purchase Urban Outfitters’ goods, you are not only condoning their ethically dubious behavior, you are directly hurting the independent artists and cutting into their profits.

With its products, Urban Outfitters perpetuates harmful ideas and stereotypes, and the firm’s business plan to appear cutting-edge has led to questionable decisions such as marketing products “inspired by” the ideas of independent artists. It is unfortunate when you disagree with the personal investment decisions of an executive. But you can more effectively make a statement if you refuse to buy a product that directly sends a negative message rather than politicizing a product that is not associated with your cause. Urban Outfitters does have every right to continue printing controversial clothing as long as everything it does is lawful. Just because the clothing exists, doesn’t mean that it’s in good taste or that you should buy it, though. Overall, if you’re looking for a company to openly and staunchly boycott, I’d recommend Urban Outfitters or a similar company over most anything else.

Ashley Spinks’ column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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