While on what seemed like a never-ending road trip, I sat, knees bent, crammed amongst a fortress of stacked books and magazines and overstuffed tote bags, scrolling through Twitter in the backseat of the car. I came across a tweet taunting, “If you love shopping at Urban Outfitters, get ready for that to change.” And I wasn’t exactly ready. Though I was well aware that Urban stores contribute to a forced sense of originality that every image-conscious self-proclaimed hipster teen can latch on to, mimicking a carefully curated blend of nonchalant irony and effortlessly bohemian opulence, I still wasn’t totally prepared to abandon my one-stop-shop for frayed crop tops and intentionally tacky trinkets. It was with hesitance that I opened the link.
The attached YouTube video swooped in on Urban Outfitters and as promised, proceeded to tell “a whole bunch of bad stuff about it.”
From the day I first discovered its artificially timeworn tank tops, Urban Outfitters has been nothing short of provocative. In highschool, when I would drag my mom past the mustachioed greeters who would casually “what’s up,” into the busy store, she would shudder with disgust at the crude, faintly witty knick knacks and novelties, calling it “a disgusting store.”
In the past year or so I had become aware of many of Urban Outfitters’ more widely known offenses—it’s cringingly insensitive t-shirts and distasteful trappings, a repeat offense that the brand can’t quite seem shake. Yet, after silently reviling them for these offenses from behind my computer screen, I continued to browse through the racks of slouchy cardigans and high-waisted shorts and scan the shelves of rustically musky candles at my local Urban store. Because, fashion.
In addition to restating the myriad of demographics that Urban Outfitters has offended through its merchandise, the video also introduced viewers to Urban Outfitters’ CEO, revealing his personal beliefs and his involvement in supporting his anti-gay convictions.
I was no longer blissfully unaware of the face behind the artfully distressed fabric of the brand.
When the illusion of the image that a brand has crafted is shattered, and we see the slightly disheveled-looking old guy behind the elaborately embellished curtain, we are forced to see beyond the content of the store or business and face the beliefs of the figures tinkering in the background. Similar to the way in which customers choose whether or not to allow the very publicly chronicled lives of performers to influence iTunes libraries or ticket sales, we must also now evaluate the morality of the businesses that we support.
We have been faced with this sort of jarring exposure time and time again with high profile companies. The ongoing sexual harassment allegations following American Apparel’s former CEO are more than unsettling, while Hobby Lobby’s contraception mandate controversy, and Starbucks and Chick-fil-A’s consistent outspokenness regarding gay marriage have each respectively provoked passionate reactions from the public. Not only are the personal beliefs of those behind the companies put into question in such revelations, but it seems that so are those of the consumer.
There are customers who may continue to flaunt their flower crowns and $50 flannels with apathy and there those who believe that where you purchase your coffee defines your morals. Should we remind ourselves what we are supporting or not supporting when we run out for our frothy coffee drinks or shop for our scrapbooking supplies and kitschy knick knacks? Should we keep a running log of the stores whose products we once enjoyed but whose ethics we hate and the businesses that it’s OK to support, reminding ourselves of those who have committed unforgivable offenses and intentionally frequenting those that have proudly supported causes we agree with? Has shopping become an experience of moral turmoil and self reflection?
The concrete act of purchasing something from a business that is outspoken about its beliefs presents me with the sometimes daunting task of confronting mine. And admittedly, the idea that I’m making a social or political statement when deciding whether or not to purchase the pair of overpriced cutoff shorts significantly intimidates me.