When Good Clothing Goes Bad


As we’ve discussed more than once on this blog (i.e.herehere, and here), it is often difficult to reconcile the brands we love with the questionable ethics they practice. To boycott or not to boycott? Do we care, or do we simply shop?

Three separate companies have made recent headlines for questionable ethics: HollisterForever 21, and Urban Outfitters. Hollister, the clothing retailer owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, is facing serious questions about the treatment of their employees due to a recent “massive bedbug outbreak.” Employees at the flagship store in New York City had been complaining to management for weeks about itching, bites, and actual live bug sightings. But to no avail: management was unresponsive and continued to force employers to work. As one employee reported anonymously, “Hollister was more concerned about losing money than the health and safety of their hundreds of employees and thousands of customers.”

Yup, customers too have been exposed through the merchandise they’ve bought, meaning employees, customers, and even innocent browsers are all at risk. All of this means that things are looking pretty bad for Hollister and parent company A&F; as Michael M. Martin, a prof at Fordham Law School, told the Wall Street Journal, “Technically it's a breach of warranty of merchantability [between the retailer and the customer].” So bring on the lawsuits— but how about boycotts?

Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters are also in trouble, but not for issues of corporate practice. Both popular retailers are under fire for merchandise that seems to promote, respectively, anorexia and teen pregnancy. Yikes.

Infamous for their politically incorrect merch, Urban Outfitters recently pulled from their website a grey v-neck tee emblazoned with the slogan, “Eat Less.” Modeled on the site by an excessively skinny model, the tee was seen as promoting the pro-anorexia movement. Many have accused Urban of endorsing a dangerous message, some even calling the store a “self-confidence killer.” Has Urban gone too far with a shirt that encourages anorexic behavior? Or is a silly slogan tee-situation being blown out of proportion?

And lastly, there is the most curious of all: Forever 21’s new maternity line, Love 21 Maternity. While on the one hand it makes perfect sense that an 17-year old expectant mother would want cute clothes just like her peers, so the savvy retailer is providing the goods. Yet is Forever 21 slapping too-positive a label on teen pregnancy by doing so? One interesting tidbit to tip the scales is the location of the new line, which is currently only available in five states: Arizona, Alaska, California, Utah, and Texas (plus online). Three out of five of those states make the list of states with the highest percentages of teen pregnancy in the US.

Forever 21 responded to critics in a statement: “Forever 21 did not create, design or distribute Love 21 Maternity to target, or appeal specifically to pregnant teens. Any relationship between teen pregnancy rates and the locations of our stores is unintentional.” But that does not change the fact that the line could potentially condone, encourage, and/or glamorize teen pregnancy.

For a store that prints Bible quotes on the bottom of its shopping bags, it’s certainly a mixed message. One might think it more productive to offer custom Forever 21 condoms alongside the maternity gear— or would that be too heavy-handed?

— By Ellie Krupnick, Barnard College

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