American Apparel does good-- but are they good enough to make up for past failures?

Is there such a thing as a perfect company?

Companies love to talk about the good they are doing, whether that good is supporting education, treating laborers well, or advocating for animal rights.

The problem is that one good deed does not mean a company has moral practices across the board. Too often, a “good” company has skeletons in its closet.

With these contradicting morals, companies essentially expect people to be one-issue activists when they shop. You can care about workers’ rights, LGBT issues, or the environment—pick just one!

But the world doesn’t work that way.

Here are two examples of companies that have done both good and bad:

American Apparel: good for workers, bad for women.

American Apparel is one company that has been in the spotlight for its mistakes recently.

As their name suggests, American Apparel makes their clothing in the United States. In fact, a quick visit to the “About Us” section of the American Apparel website leads to the slogan “Passion, innovation & ethical prices for the clothing industry. That’s American Apparel.” They advertise that their garment workers make “up to 50 times more than the competition.”

And this isn’t just propaganda coming from American Apparel’s website. American Apparel’s garment sewing factory in Los Angeles grew to be the largest of its kind in the United States. The thousands of workers in this factory make $12 an hour on average, and have benefits such as an on-site medical clinic and free massages.

American Apparel has also advocated for LGBT rights. They’ve released a number of tshirts advocating for LGBT equality. These originally started as a way to support their LGBT workers, and later were part of a corporate partnership with GLAAD. They have also donated a portion of the proceeds of certain items to GLAAD.

And in addition, the company has supported immigration reform. In 2009, founder Dov Charney himself marched in a May Day immigration rights protest.

All of this is important, but the good American Apparel has done is marred by its bad behavior in other issue areas.

Most famously, Charney was forced out of his position as the company’s top executive for, among other things, sexual harassment of female employees. And though the company has tried to distance itself from him, he remains on staff as a “strategic consultant.”

Furthermore, anyone who has walked by an American Apparel store window or seen one of their ads knows that their media objectifies women. This treatment of women is unacceptable, and complicates the idea of American Apparel as a gender progressive company. It shows that the company’s LGBT rights advocacy is really just advocacy for the rights of a small proportion of the LGBT community.

Amazon: “Good” for charities, bad for workers & the environment

On the other end of the labor rights spectrum, we’ve got Amazon and their AmazonSmile campaign.

AmazonSmile allows customers to choose a charity to receive a percentage of Amazon’s proceeds during a sale. Everything else about the customer’s experience (the prices, the site format) stays the same.

It sounds like a win-win for charitably minded customers and the causes they support, until you consider that Amazon is using the good feeling of charitable giving to drive sales, while giving little actual money to charities.

On top of that, Amazon is no angel.

First of all, the company treats their workers terribly. They micromanage factory workers’ time and expect increased productivity without increased wages to match, have fought off all attempts at unionizinghire many factory workers temporarily and treat them less well than permanent workers,  and are even under investigation from the U.S. Department of Labor due to two recent worker deaths.

Amazon’s poor labor practices aren’t limited to their factory workers. Many of their office workers are also hired temporarily, as contract workers, which creates a frustrating work environment and prevents those workers from receiving benefits like health insurance.

The company also receives tax breaks in many states, which hurts competing companies. Where and when Amazon’s tax avoidance has been challenged, the company has closed factories and ended dealings with small merchants.

Just in case all of these issues isn’t enough to turn you off to the internet shopping giant, Amazon also doesn’t seem to care about their massive energy use and environmental impact.

All of these issues add a cruel irony to AmazonSmile’s support for charities including labor organizations and environmental groups. Does that 0.5% donation really make up for Amazon’s poor policies?

Making sense of conflicting causes

It’s true: companies like American Apparel and Amazon do accomplish the good things they claim to.

The problem is that they also do some very bad things.

Single-note shoppers just don’t exist. Many laborers, immigrants and LGBT people are women. Many people who support the various social causes AmazonSmile works with also support labor rights, fair competition and environmental sustainability.

But when these companies ask for public support based on one issue, and continue to do harm in another area, they ignore the fact that customers are people with complex passions and identities.

All of this presents some difficult questions:

  • How much bad does a company have to do before we write off the good they’ve done?
  • Can a company change, and can we, as consumers, forgive them?
  • Can we trust any company to be good all around? (After all, doing good is not the primary goal of companies.)
  • And furthermore, if companies are so morally precarious, can purchasing power really be meaningful?

Despite these questions, we can’t remove morality from our spending decisions. Just because companies make mistakes, doesn’t mean that we should grow cynical about all companies.

So what can we do to spend better?

1. Do your research.

Don’t take what companies say about themselves as the full story—a little third party research can provide a more clear picture of who the company is, and what they’ve done. A simple Google search of a company’s name, along with the word “scandal” can reveal a surprising amount of information.

And it isn’t all bad—Googling “Costco scandal” or “Shake Shack scandal” yields few results, and the most damning article about Costco includes their promise to adjust their policies

2. Buy local.

When you can, choose to buy local. Locally-purchased items tend to have more transparent production processes, and you can know that the company isn’t using another country’s, state’s, or city’s laws to circumvent protections in your own area.

3. Buy small.

While large companies can have sound policies, and have a large positive impact when they do, they are likely to be more profit driven and it is also harder to be fully aware of all of their practices.

Buying small can mean paying a bit more, but it can also mean great assurances of both ethics and quality (think of handcrafted items). That locally-owned bookstore down the block probably doesn’t hyper-manage employees’ time, and demand increases in productivity for no increases in wages.

Furthermore, websites like Etsy allow us to buy items directly from their producers, even if their producers are not operating a large business.

4. Use your judgment.

Ultimately, we each have to make our own decisions about which companies are “good enough” to give your business to, and which ones have crossed the line of no return. Some problematic companies I still see as worthwhile, albeit with caution. Others I can’t justify to myself.

It can be startling to realize that a company that seems morally good has also done some pretty bad things in another area. But if corporations are people, then we should treat them as such: we each decide which companies are good influences, and which we should avoid.

Fortunately the Internet has made information about companies more accessible than ever. And when we have the facts, we can make smart decisions about how to use our purchasing power, even if these decisions aren’t always black and white.

Julia Wejchert is a 20-something living in DC. She has a master’s in Gender, Policy, & Inequalities from the LSE and wrote for The Vermont Cynic as an undergrad. Julia works at a nonprofit, loves travel and her dog, and is a proud feminist. Follow her on Twitter: @JuliaLW.