sigh, not that I really can afford their clothes anymore OR fit in a size 1, but...
Published on Thursday, July 8, 2004 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
In Consumer America it Should be Easier to Shop Our Values
by Lauren Raheja
Most customers who walk into Urban Outfitters to stock up on baby T's, hip-slung jeans and other trendy accessories probably assume they're supporting an independent retailer rather than a massive corporation like The Gap or Express.
Whether it's intentional or not, that's the image Urban Outfitters projects to its target base of young, educated urban consumers -- and it seems to serve the chain well.
Probably unbeknownst to the majority of its customers, however, Urban Outfitters Inc., based in Philadelphia, is a corporation with more than 60 stores in the United States, Canada and Europe; it's also the parent company of both Anthropologie and Free People, clothing chains targeted at slightly different demographic groups.
Moreover, despite Urban Outfitters' appeal to the young, progressive crowd, cofounder and President Richard Hayne's political bent would no doubt surprise many young hipsters. He has, for example, contributed more than $13,000 to Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., most recently noted for comments comparing homosexuality to bestiality.
This incongruity represents a common, troubling phenomenon in retail. It seems that it's getting harder and harder to shop our values with each passing year.
Urban Outfitters is just one example of a company that projects an image completely different from what its executives are really all about.
You would never expect a company that sells T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Support the Arts: Sleep With A Musician" and the ironic "Jesus Is My Homeboy" to actually be led by someone who supports a politician at the forefront of the religious right's attack on homosexuality.
Chipotle, the growing chain that serves seemingly authentic burritos and employs a large percentage of Hispanic workers, is another company whose ownership might surprise customers. Although many probably believe they're supporting an independent business when they eat at Chipotle, the chain is actually owned by McDonald's.
The prevalence of sweatshop labor among certain apparel chains would also probably shock some buyers. The Gap and Lord & Taylor are widely regarded as classy merchandisers with high-quality, well-made apparel, yet BehindTheLabel.org, an online news magazine that covers sweatshop issues in the global clothing industry, cites them as retailers that are "responsible for the global sweatshop crisis."
As awareness of these issues grows, publications such as Ethical Consumer have been publishing boycott lists periodically, urging their readers to shun everything from Starbucks to the country of Burma.
But is it really that simple? We live in a world that's far too complex to slap either a "good company" or a "bad company" label on every corporation in the market. A company with a good track record on sweatshop and child labor may have discriminatory hiring practices or disregard for the environment. A company that's disliked for its corporate ownership may contribute some of its wealth to social programs in local communities.
Starbucks, for example, is the premier sponsor of the 15th Annual Business Ethics Awards and is described as "A Model Global Corporate Citizen," yet it has also been attacked for exploiting foreign labor and using genetically engineered ingredients.
Toyota, to take another example, is praised by environmentalists for its leadership in creating hybrid cars, yet it's one of the few auto manufacturers that have no unionized plants in the United States. This type of corporate dichotomy offers up quite a conundrum for the ethically minded consumer.
Rather than avoid every company on a list put out by a boycotting campaign, consumers should decide for themselves what their values are and which companies they do and do not wish to support. The trouble is, it's harder than it should be to find and keep track of the information it takes to make these decisions -- which is why consumers, even those who strive to shop ethically, find it so difficult to do so.
As much as we'd like to believe it, avoiding Starbucks won't terminate the use of genetically engineered ingredients, nor will shunning Nike result in the downfall of sweatshop labor. Still, shopping our values is something we all have the right to do as individuals, and it does have the potential to make an impact.
In a country that's defined by consumerism, and one that touts the word "freedom" as a symbol of its ideals, it should be easier for shoppers to feel confident that their dollars are going toward companies that they can stand behind.
If Urban Outfitters' T-shirts reflected its president's actual values, they would probably say something more along the lines of "Santorum Is My Homeboy" or "Sleep With A Musician, But Only If You're Married And Heterosexual."
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.
Lauren Raheja is a recent graduate of St. Paul Academy. She wrote this column during a monthlong internship at the Star Tribune.