Ethical Shopping: Discrimination at Abercrombie & Fitch

When you go shopping, you pick a store based on a number of factors: does it have great sales? Are the clothes cute? One thought that probably never crosses your mind: is this store ethical?

Such a question must be asked of the classic mall staple, Abercrombie & Fitch. The clothing store, famous for peddling sexy all-American looks to teens, recently lost its second discrimination lawsuit for refusing to allow a teenage girl with autism to bring a family member into a fitting room in August 2005. 14-year old Molly was shopping with her 17-year old sister, who asked to accompany her disabled sister in the dressing room. Even after explaining Molly’s autism, the store associate still refused. A&F lost its appeal in the discrimination case last week and was fined $115,264.

This is not the retailer’s first discrimination suit. In 2004, Abercrombie, which claims to represent a “youthful All-American lifestyle” rooted in “East Coast traditions and Ivy League heritage” agreed to pay a $40 million settlement to black, Hispanic and Asian employees and job applicants after being accused of promoting whites at the expense of minorities. Also, this year, a British employee with a prosthetic arm was instructed to work in the stock room rather than on the shop floor because she did not fit the company’s official Look Policy, for which she recently won $15,000 in compensation.

In addition, for years consumers have questioned the provocative slogans commonly used on the store’s tees, particularly ones that objectify women (or teen girls, as the case may be) such as “Show the twins” or “Female Students Wanted for Sexual Research” (part of their “New College” line of shirts for fall.)

You can tell Abercrombie is trying to “make nice”: the company’s website features a specific section called “Diversity” which states outright, “Diversity and inclusion are key to our organization’s success. We are determined to have a diverse culture, throughout our organization, that benefits from the perspectives of each individual.” That’s nice, but it goes without saying that such respect and inclusion should, well, go without saying. At this point, the pressures of multiple law suits and media backlash should hopefully impell A&F to diversify and reform their corporate culture.

Regardless, the bigger question here may be this: are we ethical shoppers? Are we willing to stop shopping at an unethical store? And if we do, what difference would it make?

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