Urban Outfitters, you’re the 9th grade boyfriend I never had.
Call me a hipster wannabe, but I was so in love with you all through high school and college, Urban. Your store’s so modern boho. Your clothes are so trendy, casual, and chic. I’ve been in awe of your accessories, your huge selection of graphic tees and flannels, your hilariously irreverent book collection. My parents don’t understand you, but gosh, I’ve wanted you so bad.
But I can’t buy from you anymore, Urban Outfitters. We’re through.
For years, Urban Outfitters has been the source of near-constant criticism over just about everything: offensive merchandise, outrageous price points on low-quality items, and their CEO’s use of money to support anti-gay politicians like Rick Santorum.
They’ve allegedly repeatedly plagiarized small designers’ work, and presented products that parody religious groups (here, too), trans* people, and racial and ethnic minorities. They’ve created a line of shot glasses and flasks that look like prescription pill bottles. This summer, they’re opening up a hair salon in one of their New York stores called “Hairroin,” and giving away pens in the shape of hypodermic needles, with the words “I love Hairroin” scrawled on them.
In 2011, they tried to sell a graphic t-shirt that read, “Eat Less.” Not long after it came on the scene, the company quietly took the shirt off its website, but not before the shirt and the company could make headlines. Health advocates argued the shirt encouraged poor body image and could trigger anorexia in those who struggle with the disease.
That shirt gave me a lot of heartburn about my love affair with Urban. This isn’t the brand I love, I thought. Willfully ignorant of their other missteps, I told myself the “Eat less” shirt was bad. And I did nothing to change my behavior.
But then, this January, they struck a nerve again. Urban released a shirt with the word “Depression” written all over it. Critics once again were all over the product (the single item in Urban stores from a fashion company called Depression), and Urban deleted the product off its site. Most times there’s been some offensive product, people have raised a ruckus, and the product disappears.
After the “Depression” shirt fiasco came onto my radar, I couldn’t hide anymore. I started to do research to find the real deal on Urban, and I was disgusted by what I found. It’s like Urban has used the public as their moral compass, to gauge what’s appropriately edgy—just like a teenager, testing out the boundaries of their parents with curse words and rebellious behavior.
So why is Urban still making money?
Because of me, and people like me, who are loyal to the look they’re sold, and ignore the ridiculousness that comes with it. I am the target audience of Urban Outfitters—the millennial they describe on their company website. And I’ve been telling them for years with my dollars, that it’s okay to make money off an offensive product unless the press gets really bad.
I can’t keep supporting the company that encourages my friends who are living with eating disorders to eat less. If I wore that shirt, what would I be saying to them? That their struggle is what makes me stylish?
The trouble is, it goes beyond just not buying the “Eat Less” shirt, or making mental illness a fashion statement with “Depression.” If I give Urban my money, I’ve just bought stock in their general message. I’m paying them for the privilege of advertising for them.
That’s why I’ve promised myself that I’m going to try to be more aware of my purchases. I want to challenge myself with these 4 questions before every shopping trip, to make sure I’m purchasing with personal integrity.
1. What statement does their merchandise make? When I wear this attire, what does it say about me?
I don’t need to wear clothes just to make other people happy. But I do need to be aware of the statement of the clothes I’m wearing, and not to actively hurt others with the brands or graphics that I wear.
2. What do this company’s price point and quality say about my values?
I don’t have money to spend on clothes that wear out fast. When I wear something that costs a lot and is pretty for only a few washes, I’m furious—like when I bought a sale shirt at Urban that fell apart the first time I wore it. I value quality clothes that last, so that I can afford to buy fewer clothes.
3. Who am I supporting with my money? How are leaders of this company managing the workers, the money, and their lives?
What do you want to see in the management of a corporation? I personally look for women, people of color, and a diverse range of ages and backgrounds on a board. Urban Outfitters, Inc., has exactly one woman on their Board of Directors—and she’s the CEO/chairman’s wife. All the rest? Old, white men.
(Maybe it’s not that hard to understand why they feel so out of touch with their target audience of young, urban, left-leaning hipsters…?)
4. What cause does the company support? How is the company aware of modern society?
Many corporations today pick up causes that mean something to them, and that they can market out to their customers, to show they’re aware. Patagonia picked sustainability, Starbucks digs ethical sourcing. Google is a huge supporter of marriage equality.
As far as I know, Urban has officially aligned itself with no current cause. While that’s not essential for a company to be a company, shouldn’t a debt-free corporation like Urban do more than just line their CEO’s pockets with our dollars?
Right now, Urban’s goal is not to make you love them because they’re good. They want you to love them because they’re exciting. They’re edgy.
But they’re also not as financially stable as they once were.
At the end of Quarter 1 of 2014, Urban Outfitters reported significant losses, with sales decreasing 12% from the previous year. But during the same period, Urban’s parent company (Urban Outfitters, Inc.) saw sales increase.
Why is that? It’s because Urban isn’t working alone: Urban Outfitters, Inc. also runs Anthropologie and Free People (both of which lack the history of controversy). These two other stores have buoyed Urban throughout its gradual decline in the past few years, and the corporation is now poised to rise again in the stock market. When I shop at Anthropologie and Free People, I’m financially supporting Urban, too.
The Chief Financial Officer of Urban has stressed that the primary goal for the company is to “regain momentum at the Urban Outfitters’ brand.” So what that means is they’re poised to make changes. I can have a say in these changes, and I can help the company mature.
But that means I can’t buy from them today, or even down the road. Unless I see real change, Urban Outfitters, we have to break up.
I’m not in ninth grade anymore, so it’s time for me to say goodbye to a company that I can’t stand behind. I’ve been hanging on to this idea of “cool,” as sold by Urban, but it just doesn’t match my beliefs.
If you’re curious what your favorite brand or store believes in, take a quick trip to Google and search its name, along with the word “criticism.” You may be surprised to see what you find.
** UPDATE, 9/15/14: It seems that the bad sometimes just gets worse. Urban Outfitters just released a sweatshirt that’s the latest in offensive products: a blood-stained “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt. What?
Kelsey Ryan is the editor of Groundswell’s magazine. She’s a linguist, fledgling Tolkien scholar, knitter, Oxford comma proponent, and firm believer in the use of stories for social good. Explore her website, or connect on Twitter: @kryanlion.