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Emma Orlow Headshot

I Shop, Therefore I Am

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"I shop, therefore I am" is a slogan made ubiquitous by one of my favorite artists, Barbara Kruger, whose pop art often deals with consumerism and feminism. But the text-atop-screen-print, which was originally produced by Kruger in 1987, has never rung more true than for our current generation.

The anthropology behind shopping rituals is exceedingly interesting to me. These days, I buy the majority of my clothing at thrift stores. Besides the frugality factor, there's magic in thrifting. I put a lot of thought into scavenging through racks, piles, and bins, to find that one hidden taxidermy butterfly for 99 cents, and in that hallelujah rewarding moment, I think about the past owner -- what novelist's wall the butterfly may have hung on, or even the very life of the butterfly, before it was encased in a glass fixture. But even with all of the meaning I try to appropriate to stumbling upon such curiosities, there is always a whole other aspect to shopping that looms in the back of my mind: "Who made this? In what conditions? And at what cost?" Up until now, I've tried to suppress these questions.

I've read my fair share of articles about clothing companies (Victoria's Secret being one of the latest to join the group) that covertly misuse labor in under-developing countries. And yet, even with the publicity of such articles, still many -- Americans especially -- have an attitude that if it's not affecting them directly, then why should they care? We're still getting the quality of the clothes we want, right? But what if I told you about a company that is affecting our very own United States? That this store, which you've most likely shopped in multiple times, is run by a Rick Santorum supporter, under whose leadership the company has produced items that are viewed by many as homophobic and racist. Yes, this is the underbelly of fast fashion, disguised by cute clothing.

The store in question is Urban Outfitters. Over the past couple of years, I have been reading numerous pieces raising questions about some of the controversial things Urban Outfitters has put into production, and most recently, the actions of Richard Hayne, the current CEO of the company. Walk into any Urban Outfitters store location and you will indeed see that their employees are some of the most liberal people in your city. Former-CEO and co-founder of the company, Glen Senk, was openly gay and gave quite a lot of financial backing to Obama's campaign. I suppose this is why it's so shocking to see Richard Hayne, the current CEO of the company, supporting Rick Santorum (although Santorum very recently has dropped out of the race). Although he donates to the campaign with his private investments, as the occasional shopper at Urban Outfitters, I nonetheless feel somewhat responsible. Okay, so he's not directly using Urban Outfitters' money, but isn't that still the same company that signs his paycheck every month? By shopping there, aren't I feeding his cash flow, and thereby unwillingly donating a small portion of the cost of my t-shirt to Santorum? And if not Santorum, okay, a different anti-gay/abortion Republican might pique Hayne's interest in the future. The cost of my reproductive rights and the ability of my gay friends to be able to get married means way more to me than buying a cute shirt. No matter how cheap the shirt may be.

My problems with Urban Outfitters don't only stem from the political views of its CEO, to which he is entitled. What is indisputable here is that in the past couple of years Urban Outfitters has produced a series of offensive items. There was the infamous "Eat Less" t-shirt, which was to promote being skinny, but just came off as a promotion for anorexia and other negative body images, and then there was naming a Henley shirt with the color "Obama Black" in 2009. Most recently, for Saint Patrick's Day 2012, there was a whole slew of racist merchandise released, stereotypically pegging Irish, as what else -- drunks! The shirts read things such as "Kiss Me, I'm Drunk, Or Irish, Or Whatever," and a baseball cap featuring a man puking that said "Irish Yoga Position." These are just a few of the controversial items that I still can't believe Urban Outfitters put into production.

Nonetheless, I want to be clear that there are some really great things about Urban Outfitters. Their online division, especially, is the shining beacon of the company, and makes me hold onto threads of believing in them. On the Urban Outfitters blog, they're always highlighting new up-and-coming industry luminaries. My interwebs friend, Hazel Cills (who is extremely liberal) has her own column for the site that is really worth checking out. She writes about cool artists and musicians to check out and recently interviewed another one of my favorite artists, Grace Miceli, which makes for a good read.

Even so, for the time being, I've decided to make a pledge not to shop at Urban Outfitters, unless I read about something that completely changes my opinion on the company. A couple of days ago, at school lunch, I asked my friends if they, too, think they'll stop shopping there after hearing about all the controversy that's been buzzing about UO. My friend, Katie countered, saying, "As much as I'd love to support this cause, I feel that there is not enough awareness about the issue. If it were to turn into a national movement, I would. However, at the moment I feel like not enough people, especially teenagers, since that's kind of their demographic, know about the issue. So boycotting would be a moot point." Maybe Katie is right. Maybe my boycotting won't make a difference, but hey, all movements have to start somewhere. So I'm starting right here, right now, with you all.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Urban Outfitters matter, or any counter information you have. I'm not set on my pledge, as I don't know any head of Urban Outfitters personally, but for now, from everything I've read thus far, I've been disgusted enough to write all of this for you here. Are you guys going to keep shopping there?

Photo credit: Flickr, thinkretail.